I do not believe that the most enthusiastic lover of that “useful and noble animal,” the horse, will claim for him the charm of geniality, humor, or expansive confidence. Any creature who will not look you squarely in the eye—whose only oblique glances are inspired by fear, distrust, or a view to attack, who has no way of returning caresses, and whose favorite expression is one of head-lifting disdain, may be “noble” or “useful,” but can be hardly said to add to the gayety of nations. Indeed it may be broadly stated that, with the single exception of gold-fish, of all animals kept for the recreation of mankind the horse is alone capable of exciting a passion that shall be absolutely hopeless. I deem these general remarks necessary to prove that my unreciprocated affection for Chu Chu was not purely individual or singular. And I may add that to these general characteristics she brought the waywardness of her capricious sex.
She came to me out of the rolling dust of an emigrant wagon, behind whose tailboard she was gravely trotting. She was a half-broken colt—in which character she had at different times unseated everybody in the train—and, although covered with dust, she had a beautiful coat and the most lambent gazelle-like eyes I had ever seen. I think she kept these latter organs purely for ornament—apparently looking at things with her nose, her sensitive ears, and sometimes even a slight lifting of her slim near foreleg. On our first interview I thought she favored me with a coy glance, but as it was accompanied by an irrelevant “Look out!” from her owner, the teamster, I was not certain. I only know that after some conversation, a good deal of mental reservation, and the disbursement of considerable coin, I found myself standing in the dust of the departing emigrant wagon with one end of a forty-foot riata in my hand and Chu Chu at the other.
I pulled invitingly at my own end and even advanced a step or two towards her. She then broke into a long disdainful pace and began to circle round me at the extreme limit of her tether. I stood admiring her free action for some moments—not always turning with her, which was tiring—until I found that she was gradually winding herself up on me! Her frantic astonishment when she suddenly found herself thus brought up against me was one of the most remarkable things I ever saw and nearly took me off my legs. Then when she had pulled against the riata until her narrow head and prettily arched neck were on a perfectly straight line with it, she as suddenly slackened the tension and condescended to follow me, at an angle of her own choosing. Sometimes it was on one side of me, sometimes on the other. Even then the sense of my dreadful contiguity apparently would come upon her like a fresh discovery, and she would become hysterical. But I do not think that she really saw me. She looked at the riata and sniffed it disparagingly; she pawed some pebbles that were near me tentatively with her small hoof; she started back with a Robinson-Crusoe-like horror of my footprints in the wet gully, but my actual personal presence she ignored. She would sometimes pause, with her head thoughtfully between her forelegs, and apparently say, “There is some extraordinary presence here: animal, vegetable, or mineral—I can’t make out which—but it’s not good to eat, and I loathe and detest it.”
When I reached my house in the suburbs, before entering the “fifty vara” lot inclosure, I deemed it prudent to leave her outside while I informed the household of my purchase; and with this object I tethered her by the long riata to a solitary sycamore which stood in the centre of the road, the crossing of two frequented thoroughfares. It was not long, however, before I was interrupted by shouts and screams from that vicinity and on returning thither I found that Chu Chu, with the assistance of her riata, had securely wound up two of my neighbors to the tree, where they presented the appearance of early Christian martyrs. When I released them, it appeared that they had been attracted by Chu Chu’s graces, and had offered her overtures of affection, to which she had characteristically rotated with this miserable result.
I led her, with some difficulty, warily keeping clear of the riata, to the inclosure, from whose fence I had previously removed several bars. Although the space was wide enough to have admitted a troop of cavalry, she affected not to notice it and managed to kick away part of another section on entering. She resisted the stable for some time, but after carefully examining it with her hoofs and an affectedly meek outstretching of her nose, she consented to recognize some oats in the feed-box—without looking at them—and was formally installed. All this while she had resolutely ignored my presence. As I stood watching her, she suddenly stopped eating; the same reflective look came over her. “Surely I am not mistaken, but that same obnoxious creature is somewhere about here!” she seemed to say, and shivered at the possibility.
It was probably this which made me confide my unreciprocated affection to one of my neighbors—a man supposed to be an authority on horses, and particularly of that wild species to which Chu Chu belonged. It was he who, leaning over the edge of the stall where she was complacently and, as usual, obliviously munching, absolutely dared to toy with a pet lock of hair which she wore over the pretty star on her forehead. “Ye see, captain,” he said with jaunty easiness, “hosses is like wimmen; ye don’t want ter use any standoffishness or shyness with them; a stiddy but keerless sort o’ familiarity, a kind o’ free but firm handlin’, jess like this, to let her see who’s master——”
We never clearly knew how it happened; but when I picked up my neighbor from the doorway, amid the broken splinters of the stall rail and a quantity of oats that mysteriously filled his hair and pockets, Chu Chu was found to have faced around the other way and was contemplating her forelegs, with her hind ones in the other stall. My neighbor spoke of damages while he was in the stall, and of physical coercion when he was out of it again. But here Chu Chu, in some marvelous way, righted herself, and my neighbor departed hurriedly with a brimless hat and an unfinished sentence.
My next intermediary was Enriquez Saltello—a youth of my age, and the brother of Consuelo Saltello, whom I adored. As a Spanish Californian he was presumed, on account of Chu Chu’s half-Spanish origin, to have superior knowledge of her character, and I even vaguely believed that his language and accent would fall familiarly on her ear. There was the drawback, however, that he always preferred to talk in a marvelous English, combining Castilian precision with what he fondly believed to be Californian slang.
“To confer then as to thees horse, which is not—observe me—a Mexican plug! Ah, no! you can your boots bet on that. She is of Castilian stock—believe me and strike me dead! I will myself at different times overlook and affront her in the stable, examine her as to the assault, and why she should do thees thing. When she is of the exercise, I will also accost and restrain her. Remain tranquil, my friend! When a few days shall pass, much shall be changed, and she will be as another. Trust your oncle do thees thing! Comprehend me! Everything shall be lovely, and the goose hang high!”
Conformably with this, he “overlooked” her the next day, with a cigarette between his yellow-stained finger tips, which made her sneeze in a silent pantomimic way, and certain blandishments of speech which she received with more complacency. But I don’t think she ever even looked at him. In vain he protested that she was the “dearest” and “littlest” of his “little loves”—in vain he asserted that she was his patron saint, and that it was his soul’s delight to pray to her; she accepted the compliment with her eyes fixed upon the manger. When he had exhausted his whole stock of endearing diminutives, adding a few playful and more audacious sallies, she remained with her head down, as if inclined to meditate upon them. This he declared was at least an improvement on her former performances. It may have been my own jealousy, but I fancied she was only saying to herself, “Gracious! can there be two of them?”
“Courage and patience, my friend,” he said, as we were slowly quitting the stable. “Thees horse is yonge, and has not yet the habitude of the person. To-morrow, at another season, I shall give to her a foundling” (“fondling,” I have reason to believe, was the word intended by Enriquez)—”and we shall see. It shall be as easy as to fall away from a log. A leetle more of this chin music which your friend Enriquez possesses, and some tapping of the head and neck, and you are there. You are ever the right side up. Houp la! But let us not precipitate this thing. The more haste, we do not so much accelerate ourselves.”
He appeared to be suiting the action to the word as he lingered in the doorway of the stable. “Come on,” I said.
“Pardon,” he returned, with a bow that was both elaborate and evasive, “but you shall yourself precede me—the stable is yours.”
“Oh, come along!” I continued impatiently. To my surprise, he seemed to dodge back into the stable again. After an instant he reappeared.
“Pardon! but I am re-strain! Of a truth, in this instant I am grasp by the mouth of thees horse in the coat-tail of my dress! She will that I should remain. It would seem”—he disappeared again—”that”—he was out once more—”the experiment is a sooccess! She reciprocate! She is, of a truth, gone on me. It is lofe!”—a stronger pull from Chu Chu here sent him in again—”but”—he was out now triumphantly with half his garment torn away—”I shall coquet.”
Nothing daunted, however, the gallant fellow was back next day with a Mexican saddle and attired in the complete outfit of a vaquero. Overcome though he was by heavy deerskin trousers, open at the side from the knees down, and fringed with bullion buttons, an enormous flat sombrero, and stiff, short embroidered velvet jacket, I was more concerned at the ponderous saddle and equipments intended for the slim Chu Chu. That these would hide and conceal her beautiful curves and contour, as well as overweight her, seemed certain; that she would resist them all to the last seemed equally clear. Nevertheless, to my surprise, when she was led out, and the saddle thrown deftly across her back, she was passive. Was it possible that some drop of her old Spanish blood responded to its clinging embrace? She did not either look at it nor smell it. But when Enriquez began to tighten the “cinch” or girth, a more singular thing occurred. Chu Chu visibly distended her slender barrel to twice its dimensions; the more he pulled the more she swelled, until I was actually ashamed of her. Not so Enriquez. He smiled at us, and complacently stroked his thin moustache.
“Eet is ever so! She is the child of her grandmother! Even when you shall make saddle thees old Castilian stock, it will make large—it will become a balloon! Eet is trick—eet is a leetle game—believe me. For why?”
I had not listened, as I was at that moment astonished to see the saddle slowly slide under Chu Chu’s belly, and her figure resume, as if by magic, its former slim proportions. Enriquez followed my eyes, lifted his shoulders, shrugged them, and said smilingly, “Ah, you see!”
When the girths were drawn in again with an extra pull or two from the indefatigable Enriquez, I fancied that Chu Chu nevertheless secretly enjoyed it, as her sex is said to appreciate tight-lacing. She drew a deep sigh, possibly of satisfaction, turned her neck, and apparently tried to glance at her own figure—Enriquez promptly withdrawing to enable her to do so easily. Then the dread moment arrived. Enriquez, with his hand on her mane, suddenly paused and, with exaggerated courtesy, lifted his hat and made an inviting gesture.
“You will honor me to precede.”
I shook my head laughingly.
“I see,” responded Enriquez gravely. “You have to attend the obsequies of your aunt who is dead, at two of the clock. You have to meet your broker who has bought you feefty share of the Comstock lode—at thees moment—or you are loss! You are excuse! Attend! Gentlemen, make your bets! The band has arrived to play! ‘Ere we are!”
With a quick movement the alert young fellow had vaulted into the saddle. But, to the astonishment of both of us, the mare remained perfectly still. There was Enriquez bolt upright in the stirrups, completely overshadowing by his saddle-flaps, leggings, and gigantic spurs the fine proportions of Chu Chu, until she might have been a placid Rosinante, bestridden by some youthful Quixote. She closed her eyes, she was going to sleep! We were dreadfully disappointed. This clearly would not do. Enriquez lifted the reins cautiously! Chu Chu moved forward slowly—then stopped, apparently lost in reflection.
“Affront her on thees side.”
I approached her gently. She shot suddenly into the air, coming down again on perfectly stiff legs with a springless jolt. This she instantly followed by a succession of other rocket-like propulsions, utterly unlike a leap, all over the inclosure. The movements of the unfortunate Enriquez were equally unlike any equitation I ever saw. He appeared occasionally over Chu Chu’s head, astride her neck and tail, or in the free air, but never in the saddle. His rigid legs, however, never lost the stirrups, but came down regularly, accentuating her springless hops. More than that, the disproportionate excess of rider, saddle, and accoutrements was so great that he had, at times, the appearance of lifting Chu Chu forcibly from the ground by superior strength, and of actually contributing to her exercise! As they came towards me, a wild tossing and flying mass of hoofs and spurs, it was not only difficult to distinguish them apart, but to ascertain how much of the jumping was done by Enriquez separately. At last Chu Chu brought matters to a close by making for the low-stretching branches of an oak-tree which stood at the corner of the lot. In a few moments she emerged from it—but without Enriquez.
I found the gallant fellow disengaging himself from the fork of a branch in which he had been firmly wedged, but still smiling and confident, and his cigarette between his teeth. Then for the first time he removed it, and seating himself easily on the branch with his legs dangling down, he blandly waved aside my anxious queries with a gentle reassuring gesture.
“Remain tranquil, my friend. Thees does not count! I have conquer—you observe—for why? I have never for once arrive at the ground! Consequent she is disappoint! She will ever that I should! But I have got her when the hair is not long! Your oncle Henry”—with an angelic wink—”is fly! He is ever a bully boy, with the eye of glass! Believe me. Behold! I am here! Big Injun! Whoop!”
He leaped lightly to the ground. Chu Chu, standing watchfully at a little distance, was evidently astonished at his appearance. She threw out her hind hoofs violently, shot up into the air until the stirrups crossed each other high above the saddle, and made for the stable in a succession of rabbit-like bounds—taking the precaution to remove the saddle, on entering, by striking it against the lintel of the door. “You observe,” said Enriquez blandly, “she would make that thing of me. Not having the good occasion, she ees dissatisfied. Where are you now?”
Two or three days afterwards he rode her again with the same result—accepted by him with the same heroic complacency. As we did not, for certain reasons, care to use the open road for this exercise and as it was impossible to remove the tree, we were obliged to submit to the inevitable. On the following day I mounted her—undergoing the same experience as Enriquez, with the individual sensation of falling from a third-story window on top of a counting-house stool, and the variation of being projected over the fence. When I found that Chu Chu had not accompanied me, I saw Enriquez at my side. “More than ever it is become necessary that we should do thees things again,” he said gravely, as he assisted me to my feet. “Courage, my noble General! God and Liberty! Once more on to the breach! Charge, Chestare, charge! Come on, Don Stanley! ‘Ere we are!”
He helped me none too quickly to catch my seat again, for it apparently had the effect of the turned peg on the enchanted horse in the Arabian Nights, and Chu Chu instantly rose into the air. But she came down this time before the open window of the kitchen, and I alighted easily on the dresser. The indefatigable Enriquez followed me.
“Won’t this do?” I asked meekly.
“It ees better—for you arrive not on the ground,” he said cheerfully; “but you should not once but a thousand times make trial! Ha! Go and win! Nevare die and say so! ‘Eave ahead! ‘Eave! There you are!”
Luckily, this time I managed to lock the rowels of my long spurs under her girth, and she could not unseat me. She seemed to recognize the fact after one or two plunges, when to my great surprise, she suddenly sank to the ground and quietly rolled over me. The action disengaged my spurs, but righting herself without getting up, she turned her beautiful head and absolutely looked at me!—still in the saddle. I felt myself blushing! But the voice of Enriquez was at my side.
“Errise, my friend; you have conquer! It is she who has arrive at the ground! You are all right. It is done; believe me, it is feenish! No more shall she make thees think. From thees instant you shall ride her as the cow—as the rail of thees fence—and remain tranquil. For she is a-broke! Ta-ta! Regain your hats, gentlemen! Pass in your checks! It is ovar! How are you now?” He lit a fresh cigarette, put his hands in his pockets, and smiled at me blandly.
For all that, I ventured to point out that the habit of alighting in the fork of a tree, or the disengaging of one’s self from the saddle on the ground, was attended with inconvenience, and even ostentatious display. But Enriquez swept the objections away with a single gesture. “It is the preencipal—the bottom fact—at which you arrive. The next come of himself! Many horse have achieve to mount the rider by the knees, and relinquish after thees same fashion. My grandfather had a barb of thees kind—but she has gone dead, and so have my grandfather. Which is sad and strange! Otherwise I shall make of them both an instant example!”
I ought to have said that although these performances were never actually witnessed by Enriquez’s sister—for reasons which he and I thought sufficient—the dear girl displayed the greatest interest in them and, perhaps aided by our mutually complimentary accounts of each other, looked upon us both as invincible heroes. It is possible also that she over-estimated our success, for she suddenly demanded that I should ride Chu Chu to her house, that she might see her. It was not far; by going through a back lane I could avoid the trees which exercised such a fatal fascination for Chu Chu. There was a pleading, childlike entreaty in Consuelo’s voice that I could not resist, with a slight flash from her lustrous dark eyes that I did not care to encourage. So I resolved to try it at all hazards.
My equipment for the performance was modeled after Enriquez’s previous costume, with the addition of a few fripperies of silver and stamped leather out of compliment to Consuelo, and even with a faint hope that it might appease Chu Chu. She certainly looked beautiful in her glittering accoutrements, set off by her jet-black shining coat. With an air of demure abstraction she permitted me to mount her, and even for a hundred yards or so indulged in a mincing maidenly amble that was not without a touch of coquetry. Encouraged by this, I addressed a few terms of endearment to her, and in the exuberance of my youthful enthusiasm I even confided to her my love for Consuelo and begged her to be “good” and not disgrace herself and me before my Dulcinea. In my foolish trustfulness I was rash enough to add a caress and to pat her soft neck. She stopped instantly with a hysteric shudder. I knew what was passing through her mind: she had suddenly become aware of my baleful existence.
The saddle and bridle Chu Chu was becoming accustomed to, but who was this living, breathing object that had actually touched her? Presently her oblique vision was attracted by the fluttering movement of a fallen oak leaf in the road before her. She had probably seen many oak leaves many times before; her ancestors had no doubt been familiar with them on the trackless hills and in field and paddock, but this did not alter her profound conviction that I and the leaf were identical, that our baleful touch was something indissolubly connected. She reared before that innocent leaf, she revolved round it, and then fled from it at the top of her speed.
The lane passed before the rear wall of Saltello’s garden. Unfortunately, at the angle of the fence stood a beautiful Madroño-tree, brilliant with its scarlet berries, and endeared to me as Consuelo’s favorite haunt, under whose protecting shade I had more than once avowed my youthful passion. By the irony of fate Chu Chu caught sight of it, and with a succession of spirited bounds instantly made for it. In another moment I was beneath it, and Chu Chu shot like a rocket into the air. I had barely time to withdraw my feet from the stirrups, to throw up one arm to protect my glazed sombrero and grasp an over-hanging branch with the other, before Chu Chu darted off. But to my consternation, as I gained a secure perch on the tree and looked about me, I saw her—instead of running away—quietly trot through the open gate into Saltello’s garden.
Need I say that it was to the beneficent Enriquez that I again owed my salvation? Scarcely a moment elapsed before his bland voice rose in a concentrated whisper from the corner of the garden below me. He had divined the dreadful truth!
“For the love of God, collect to yourself many kinds of thees berry! All you can! Your full arms round! Rest tranquil. Leave to your ole oncle to make for you a delicate exposure. At the instant!”
He was gone again. I gathered, wonderingly, a few of the larger clusters of parti-colored fruit and patiently waited. Presently he reappeared, and with him the lovely Consuelo—her dear eyes filled with an adorable anxiety.
“Yes,” continued Enriquez to his sister, with a confidential lowering of tone but great distinctness of utterance, “it is ever so with the American! He will ever make first the salutation of the flower or the fruit, picked to himself by his own hand, to the lady where he call. It is the custom of the American hidalgo! My God—what will you? I make it not—it is so! Without doubt he is in this instant doing thees thing. That is why we have let go his horse to precede him here; it is always the etiquette to offer these things on the feet. Ah! Behold! it is he!—Don Francisco! Even now he will descend from thees tree! Ah! You make the blush, little sister (archly)! I will retire! I am discreet; two is not company for the one! I make tracks! I am gone!”
How far Consuelo entirely believed and trusted her ingenious brother I do not know, nor even then cared to inquire. For there was a pretty mantling of her olive cheek, as I came forward with my offering, and a certain significant shyness in her manner that were enough to throw me into a state of hopeless imbecility. And I was always miserably conscious that Consuelo possessed an exalted sentimentality, and a predilection for the highest mediæval romance, in which I knew I was lamentably deficient. Even in our most confidential moments I was always aware that I weakly lagged behind this daughter of a gloomily distinguished ancestry, in her frequent incursions into a vague but poetic past. There was something of the dignity of the Spanish châtelaine in the sweetly grave little figure that advanced to accept my specious offering. I think I should have fallen on my knees to present it, but for the presence of the all seeing Enriquez. But why did I even at that moment remember that he had early bestowed upon her the nickname of “Pomposa”? This, as Enriquez himself might have observed, was “sad and strange.”
I managed to stammer out something about the Madroño berries being at her “disposition” (the tree was in her own garden!), and she took the branches in her little brown hand with a soft response to my unutterable glances.
But here Chu Chu, momentarily forgotten, executed a happy diversion. To our astonishment she gravely walked up to Consuelo and, stretching out her long slim neck, not only sniffed curiously at the berries, but even protruded a black underlip towards the young girl herself. In another instant Consuelo’s dignity melted. Throwing her arms around Chu Chu’s neck she embraced and kissed her. Young as I was, I understood the divine significance of a girl’s vicarious effusiveness at such a moment, and felt delighted. But I was the more astonished that the usually sensitive horse not only submitted to these caresses, but actually responded to the extent of affecting to nip my mistress’s little right ear.
This was enough for the impulsive Consuelo. She ran hastily into the house and in a few moments reappeared in a bewitching riding-shirt. In vain Enriquez and myself joined in earnest entreaty: the horse was hardly broken for even a man’s riding yet; the saints alone could tell what the nervous creature might do with a woman’s skirt flipping at her side! We begged for delay, for reflection, for at least time to change the saddle—but with no avail! Consuelo was determined, indignant, distressingly reproachful! Ah, well! if Don Pancho (an ingenious diminutive of my Christian name) valued his horse so highly—if he were jealous of the evident devotion of the animal to herself, he would—but here I succumbed! And then I had the felicity of holding that little foot for one brief moment in the hollow of my hand, of readjusting the skirt as she threw her knee over the saddle-horn, of clasping her tightly—only half in fear—as I surrendered the reins to her grasp. And to tell the truth, as Enriquez and I fell back, although I had insisted upon still keeping hold of the end of the riata, it was a picture to admire. The petite figure of the young girl and the graceful folds of her skirt admirably harmonized with Chu Chu’s lithe contour, and as the mare arched her slim neck and raised her slender head under the pressure of the reins, it was so like the lifted velvet-capped toreador crest of Consuelo herself, that they seemed of one race.
“I would not that you should hold the riata,” said Consuelo petulantly.
I hesitated—Chu Chu looked certainly very amiable—I let go. She began to amble towards the gate, not mincingly as before, but with a freer and fuller stride. In spite of the incongruous saddle, the young girl’s seat was admirable. As they neared the gate, she cast a single mischievous glance at me, jerked at the rein, and Chu Chu sprang into the road at a rapid canter. I watched them fearfully and breathlessly, until at the end of the lane I saw Consuelo rein in slightly, wheel easily, and come flying back. There was no doubt about it; the horse was under perfect control. Her second subjugation was complete and final!
Overjoyed and bewildered, I overwhelmed them with congratulations; Enriquez alone retaining the usual brotherly attitude of criticism and a superior toleration of a lover’s enthusiasm. I ventured to hint to Consuelo (in what I believed was a safe whisper) that Chu Chu only showed my own feelings towards her. “Without doubt,” responded Enriquez gravely. “She have of herself assist you to climb to the tree to pull to yourself the berry for my sister.” But I felt Consuelo’s little hand return my pressure, and I forgave and even pitied him.
From that day forward, Chu Chu and Consuelo were not only firm friends but daily companions. In my devotion I would have presented the horse to the young girl, but with flattering delicacy she preferred to call it mine. “I shall erride it for you, Pancho,” she said; “I shall feel,” she continued with exalted although somewhat vague poetry, “That it is of you! You lofe the beast—it is therefore of a necessity you, my Pancho! It is your soul I shall erride like the wings of the wind—your lofe in this beast shall be my only cavalier for ever.” I would have preferred something whose vicarious qualities were less uncertain than I still felt Chu Chu’s to be, but I kissed the girl’s hand submissively.
It was only when I attempted to accompany her in the flesh, on another horse, that I felt the full truth of my instinctive fears. Chu Chu would not permit any one to approach her mistress’s side. My mounted presence revived in her all her old blind astonishment and disbelief in my existence; she would start suddenly, face about, and back away from me in utter amazement as if I had been only recently created, or with an affected modesty as if I had been just guilty of some grave indecorum towards her sex which she really could not stand. The frequency of these exhibitions in the public highway were not only distressing to me as a simple escort, but as it had the effect on the casual spectators of making Consuelo seem to participate in Chu Chu’s objections, I felt that, as a lover, it could not be borne. An attempt to coerce Chu Chu ended in her running away. And my frantic pursuit of her was open to equal misconstruction. “Go it, Miss, the little dude is gainin’ on you!” shouted by a drunken teamster to the frightened Consuelo, once checked me in mid-career. Even the dear girl herself saw the uselessness of my real presence, and after a while was content to ride with “my soul.”
Notwithstanding this, I am not ashamed to say that it was my custom, whenever she rode out, to keep a slinking and distant surveillance of Chu Chu on another horse, until she had fairly settled down to her pace. A little nod of Consuelo’s round black-and-red toreador hat or a kiss tossed from her riding-whip was reward enough!
I remember a pleasant afternoon when I was thus awaiting her in the village. The eternal smile of the Californian summer had begun to waver and grow less fixed; dust lay thick on leaf and blade; the dry hills were clothed in russet leather; the trade winds were shifting to the south with an ominous warm humidity; a few days longer and the rains would be here. It so chanced that this afternoon my seclusion on the roadside was accidentally invaded by a village belle—a Western young lady somewhat older than myself, and of flirtatious reputation. As she persistently and—as I now have reason to believe—mischievously lingered, I had only a passing glimpse of Consuelo riding past at an unaccustomed speed which surprised me at the moment. But as I reasoned later that she was only trying to avoid a merely formal meeting, I thought no more about it.
It was not until I called at the house to fetch Chu Chu at the usual hour, and found that Consuelo had not yet returned, that a recollection of Chu Chu’s furious pace again troubled me. An hour passed—it was getting towards sunset, but there were no signs of Chu Chu nor her mistress. I became seriously alarmed. I did not care to reveal my fears to the family, for I felt myself responsible for Chu Chu. At last I desperately saddled my horse and galloped off in the direction she had taken. It was the road to Rosario and the hacienda of one of her relations, where she sometimes halted.
The road was a very unfrequented one, twisting like a mountain river—indeed, it was the bed of an old watercourse—between brown hills of wild oats, and debouching at last into a broad blue lake-like expanse of alfalfa meadows. In vain I strained my eyes over the monotonous level; nothing appeared to rise above or move across it. In the faint hope that she might have lingered at the hacienda, I was spurring on again when I heard a slight splashing on my left. I looked around. A broad patch of fresher-colored herbage and a cluster of dwarfed alders indicated a hidden spring. I cautiously approached its quaggy edges, when I was shocked by what appeared to be a sudden vision! Mid-leg deep in the center of a greenish pool stood Chu Chu! But without a strap or buckle of harness upon her—as naked as when she was foaled!
For a moment I could only stare at her in bewildered terror. Far from recognizing me, she seemed to be absorbed in a nymph-like contemplation of her own graces in the pool. Then I called “Consuelo!” and galloped frantically around the spring. But there was no response, nor was there anything to be seen but the all-unconscious Chu Chu. The pool, thank Heaven! was not deep enough to have drowned any one; there were no signs of a struggle on its quaggy edges. The horse might have come from a distance! I galloped on, still calling. A few hundred yards further I detected the vivid glow of Chu Chu’s scarlet saddle-blanket in the brush near the trail. My heart leaped—I was on the track. I called again; this time a faint reply, in accents I knew too well, came from the field beside me!
Consuelo was there! reclining beside a manzanita bush which screened her from the road, in what struck me, even at that supreme moment, as a judicious and picturesquely selected couch of scented Indian grass and dry tussocks. The velvet hat with its balls of scarlet plush was laid carefully aside; her lovely blue-black hair retained its tight coils undisheveled, her eyes were luminous and tender. Shocked as I was at her apparent helplessness, I remember being impressed with the fact that it gave so little indication of violent usage or disaster.
I threw myself frantically on the ground beside her.
“You are hurt, Consita! For Heaven’s sake, what has happened?”
She pushed my hat back with her little hand, and tumbled my hair gently.
“Nothing. You are here, Pancho—eet is enofe! What shall come after thees—when I am perhaps gone among the grave—make nothing! You are here—I am happy. For a little, perhaps—not mooch.”
“But,” I went on desperately, “was it an accident? Were you thrown? Was it Chu Chu?”—for somehow, in spite of her languid posture and voice, I could not, even in my fears, believe her seriously hurt.
“Beat not the poor beast, Pancho. It is not from her comes thees thing. She have make nothing—believe me! I have come upon your assignation with Miss Essmith! I make but to pass you—to fly—to never come back! I have say to Chu Chu, ‘Fly!’ We fly many miles. Sometimes together, sometimes not so mooch! Sometimes in the saddle, sometimes on the neck! Many things remain in the road; at the end, I myself remain! I have say, ‘Courage, Pancho will come!’ Then I say, ‘No, he is talk with Miss Essmith!’ I remember not more. I have creep here on the hands. Eet is feenish!”
I looked at her distractedly. She smiled tenderly and slightly smoothed down and rearranged a fold of her dress to cover her delicate little boot.
“But,” I protested, “you are not much hurt, dearest. You have broken no bones. Perhaps,” I added, looking at the boot, “only a slight sprain. Let me carry you to my horse; I will walk beside you, home. Do, dearest Consita!”
She turned her lovely eyes towards me sadly. “You comprehend not, my poor Pancho! It is not of the foot, the ankle, the arm, or the head that I can say, ‘She is broke.’ I would it were even so. But”—she lifted her sweet lashes slowly—”I have derrange my inside. It is an affair of my family. My grandfather have once toomble over the bull at a rodeo. He speak no more; he is dead. For why? He has derrange his inside. Believe me, it is of the family. You comprehend? The Saltellos are not as the other peoples for this. When I am gone, you will bring to me the berry to grow upon my tomb, Pancho; the berry you have picked for me. The little flower will come too, the little star will arrive, but Consuelo, who lofe you, she will come not more!
“When you are happy and talk in the road to the Essmith, you will not think of me. You will not see my eyes, Pancho; thees little grass”—she ran her plump little fingers through a tussock—”will hide them; and the small animals in the black coats that lif here will have much sorrow—but you will not. It ees better so! My father will not that I, a Catholique, should marry into a camp-meeting and lif in a tent.” (It was one of Consuelo’s bewildering beliefs that there was only one form of dissent—Methodism!) “He will not that I should marry a man who possess not the many horses, ox, and cow, like him. But I care not. You are my only religion, Pancho! I have enofe of the horse, and ox, and cow when you are with me! Kiss me, Pancho. Perhaps it is for the last time—the feenish! Who knows?”
There were tears in her lovely eyes; I felt that my own were growing dim; the sun was sinking over the dreary plain to the slow rising of the wind; and infinite loneliness had fallen upon us, and yet I was miserably conscious of some dreadful unreality in it all. A desire to laugh, which I felt must be hysterical, was creeping over me; I dared not speak. But her dear head was on my shoulder, and the situation was not unpleasant.
Nevertheless, something must be done! This was the more difficult as it was by no means clear what had already been done. Even while I supported her drooping figure, I was straining my eyes across her shoulder for succor of some kind. Suddenly the figure of a rapid rider appeared upon the road. It seemed familiar. I looked again—it was the blessed Enriquez! A sense of deep relief came over me. I loved Consuelo; but never before had lover ever hailed the irruption of one of his beloved’s family with such complacency.
“You are safe, dearest; it is Enriquez!”
I thought she received the information coldly. Suddenly she turned upon me her eyes, now bright and glittering. “Swear to me at the instant, Pancho, that you will not again look upon Miss Essmith, even for once.”
I was simple and literal. Miss Smith was my nearest neighbor, and unless I was stricken with blindness, compliance was impossible. I hesitated—but swore.
“Enofe—you have hesitate—I will no more.”
She rose to her feet with grave deliberation. For an instant, with the recollection of the delicate internal organization of the Saltellos on my mind, I was in agony lest she should totter and fall, even then, yielding up her gentle spirit on the spot. But when I looked again, she had a hairpin between her white teeth and was carefully adjusting her toreador hat. And beside us was Enriquez—cheerful, alert, voluble, and undaunted.
“Eureka! I have found! We are all here! Eet is a leetle public—eh! A leetle too much of a front seat for a tête-à-tête, my yonge friends,” he said, glancing at the remains of Consuelo’s bower, “but for the accounting of taste there is none. What will you? The meat of the one man shall envenom the meat of the other. But” (in a whisper to me) “as to thees horse—thees Chu Chu, which I have just pass—why is she undress? Surely you would no make an exposition of her to the traveler to suspect! And if not, why so?”
I tried to explain, looking at Consuelo, that Chu Chu had run away, that Consuelo had met with a terrible accident, had been thrown, and I feared had suffered serious internal injury. But to my embarrassment Consuelo maintained a half scornful silence, and an inconsistent freshness of healthful indifference, as Enriquez approached her with an engaging smile. “Ah, yes, she have the headache, and the molligrubs. She will sit on the damp stone when the gentle dew is falling. I comprehend. Meet me in the lane when the clock strike nine! But,” in a lower voice, “of thees undress horse I comprehend nothing! Look you—it is sad and strange.”
He went off to fetch Chu Chu, leaving me and Consuelo alone. I do not think I ever felt so utterly abject and bewildered before in my life. Without knowing why, I was miserably conscious of having in some way offended the girl for whom I believed I would have given my life, and I had made her and myself ridiculous in the eyes of her brother. I had again failed in my slower Western nature to understand her high romantic Spanish soul! Meantime she was smoothing out her riding habit, and looking as fresh and pretty as when she first left her house.
“Consita,” I said hesitatingly, “you are not angry with me?”
“Angry?” she repeated haughtily, without looking at me. “Oh, no! Of a possibility eet is Mees Essmith who is angry that I have interroopt her tête-à-tête with you, and have send here my brother to make the same with me.”
“But,” I said eagerly, “Miss Smith does not even know Enriquez!”
Consuelo turned on me a glance of unutterable significance. “Ah!” she said darkly, “you tink!”
Indeed I knew. But here I believed I understood Consuelo and was relieved. I even ventured to say gently, “And you are better?”
She drew herself up to her full height, which was not much. “Of my health, what is it? A nothing. Yes! Of my soul let us not speak.”
Nevertheless, when Enriquez appeared with Chu Chu she ran towards her with outstretched arms. Chu Chu protruded about six inches of upper lip in response—apparently under the impression, which I could quite understand, that her mistress was edible. And, I may have been mistaken, but their beautiful eyes met in an absolute and distinct glance of intelligence!
During the home journey Consuelo recovered her spirits and parted from me with a magnanimous and forgiving pressure of the hand. I do not know what explanation of Chu Chu’s original escapade was given to Enriquez and the rest of the family; the inscrutable forgiveness extended to me by Consuelo precluded any further inquiry on my part. I was willing to leave it a secret between her and Chu Chu. But strange to say, it seemed to complete our own understanding, and precipitated, not only our love-making, but the final catastrophe which culminated that romance. For we had resolved to elope. I do not know that this heroic remedy was absolutely necessary from the attitude of either Consuelo’s family or my own; I am inclined to think we preferred it because it involved no previous explanation or advice.
Need I say that our confidant and firm ally was Consuelo’s brother—the alert, the linguistic, the ever-happy, ever-ready Enriquez? It was understood that his presence would not only give a certain mature respectability to our performance—but I do not think we would have contemplated this step without it. During one of our riding excursions we were to secure the services of a Methodist minister in the adjoining county, and later that of the Mission padre —when the secret was out. “I will gif her away,” said Enriquez confidently, “it will on the instant propitiate the old fellow who shall perform the affair and withhold his jaw. A little chin-music from your oncle ‘Arry shall finish it! Remain tranquil and forget not a ring! One does not always, in the agony and dissatisfaction of the moment, a ring remember. I shall bring two in the pocket of my dress.”
If I did not entirely participate in this roseate view, it may have been because Enriquez, although a few years my senior, was much younger-looking, and with his demure deviltry of eye and his upper lip close shaven for this occasion, he suggested a depraved acolyte rather than a responsible member of a family. Consuelo had also confided to me that her father—possibly owing to some rumors of our previous escapade—had forbidden any further excursions with me alone. The innocent man did not know that Chu Chu had forbidden it also, and that even on this momentous occasion both Enriquez and myself were obliged to ride in opposite fields like out-flankers. But we nevertheless felt the full guilt of disobedience added to our desperate enterprise. Meanwhile, although pressed for time and subject to discovery at any moment, I managed at certain points of the road to dismount and walk beside Chu Chu (who did not seem to recognize me on foot), holding Consuelo’s hand in my own, with the discreet Enriquez leading my horse in the distant field. I retain a very vivid picture of that walk—the ascent of a gentle slope towards a prospect as yet unknown but full of glorious possibilities; the tender dropping light of an autumn sky, slightly filmed with the promise of the future rains, like foreshadowed tears, and the half-frightened, half-serious talk into which Consuelo and I had insensibly fallen.
And then, I don’t know how it happened, but as we reached the summit Chu Chu suddenly reared, wheeled, and the next moment was flying back along the road we had just traveled, at the top of her speed! It might have been that, after her abstracted fashion, she only at that moment detected my presence; but so sudden and complete was her evolution that before I could regain my horse from the astonished Enriquez she was already a quarter of a mile on the homeward stretch, with the frantic Consuelo pulling hopelessly at the bridle.
We started in pursuit. But a horrible despair seized us. To attempt to overtake her, even to follow at the same rate of speed would only excite Chu Chu and endanger Consuelo’s life. There was absolutely no help for it, nothing could be done; the mare had taken her determined, long, continuous stride, the road was a straight, steady descent all the way back to the village, Chu Chu had the bit between her teeth, and there was no prospect of swerving her. We could only follow hopelessly, idiotically, furiously, until Chu Chu dashed triumphantly into the Saltellos’ courtyard, carrying the half-fainting Consuelo back to the arms of her assembled and astonished family.
It was our last ride together. It was the last I ever saw of Consuelo before her transfer to the safe seclusion of a convent in Southern California. It was the last I ever saw of Chu Chu, who in the confusion of that rencontre was overlooked in her half-loosed harness and allowed to escape through the back gate to the fields. Months afterwards it was said that she had been identified among a band of wild horses in the Coast Range, as a strange and beautiful creature who had escaped the brand of the rodeo and had become a myth. There was another legend that she had been seen, sleek, fat, and gorgeously caparisoned, issuing from the gateway of the Rosario patio, before a lumbering Spanish cabriole in which a short, stout matron was seated—but I will have none of it. For there are days when she still lives, and I can see her plainly still climbing the gentle slope towards the summit, with Consuelo on her back and myself at her side, pressing eagerly forward towards the illimitable prospect that opens in the distance.