The Ominous Tract

The vital chapter of Braunig’s life began six years ago when he married a Spanish girl. Of decent ancestrage, and delicately beautiful, she contrived to keep him in Old Mexico, representing quite suffi ciently the worries incident to residence in the States. Moreover, she placed at his descretion a million pesos; and they bought a jungle of hills and dales in a remote part of the country, with the Hacienda del Maguey somewhere in it, and a mountain trail finding the same after an interminable jaunt through their sixty square miles of pasture land. But ideal happiness as the romantic hacienda promised, they learned very soon after marriage that even among pastorals one hateful thing may follow another. To the wrecking of his life, Braunig found that his ideals were chaff in the wind, come fruition time; that the most sanguine hopes may die of their own futility. The first summer shattered the one pathetic idol of his life, and from its broken bits, with a hope more pathetic, he constructed a human thing instead. That Maria was merely a common being, even as a Mexican, seemed to Braunig the one intelligence he could not bear. But after the blow, he stumbled on, nobly resolved that if he could not revive their first summers of halcyon, he would be content with ordinary life. When Braunig’s father heard of the union, contrary to his expectation, there was no great complaint of debauched family honor, nor degeneracy of son, only a dignified letter of renunciation. It was final, there was to be no compromise. The father was now old, the mother dead, and Braunig the only child. Braunig regretted the necessary alienation, but he recognized it nevertheless. Prohibiting him from the States were impossible barriers, a vague sense of hesitancy and the father’s stern denial. Gradually, and with appalling cruelty, it grew upon him that he was marooned for all time. News of his father came at intervals. It was said that he aged fast; that he might forgive his son in the event of an offer; that the old estate passed into fatal neglect. But Braunig refused the invited offering, though the effort was most excruciating, and only rendered the breach more palpable. His pride, as did that of his father, intervened and forbade reunion. Since neither would burn the barriers, the two seemed separated by something as definite as the space which divides the parent oak from its scion. The first effective discord in Braunig’s married life was a mere trifle, the naming of the child ; but somehow just such trifles came to mean tremendous crises in their lives. Maria wished to name the boy Francisco; Braunig refused, but later acquiesced when he found her stubbornly persistent, though he felt a shock at finding her character so petty. This, however, was not all. Maria, with a simplicity that was more than naivete — though it might not be childishness — persisted in calling the boy San Francisco (“Ah, so good, so pure,” she had said) and allowing the peons about the hacienda to celebrate the little “saint’s” birthdays with religious fervor and ritual service, the while praising their piety and gurgling in ecstacies over their absurd fandangoes. 1 Another trifle which estranged them was the little matter of cooking. Although tortillas and red kidney-beans were deliciously sweet for a time, they soon became quite repulsive and intolerable. To this severe diet was Braunig held. At length his impassivity threw off disguise, and remonstrating gently, he suggested a change in the menu. Next day at dinner the Senora was absent. He questioned Martina, the slouch of a servant girl. No, Madam would not dine today; she would lie in her room. No, she did not wish to see the Senor; he might aggravate her indisposition. No, Francisco would not dine either; he would remain with Madam. So Braunig sat down to a detestable bowl of kidney-beans. He sniffed and tasted them. They were alive with little pods of red pepper! Francisco, always passionately fond of his parents, perceived in stinctively the widening abyss between them, and leaned to the side of his father. He seemed to worship him, but little to the satisfaction of Maria, who, it appeared, welcomed alienation. She preserved a mental attitude of scorn for all that Francisco did in love of his father. She even interfered on occasion. The boy was a splendid specimen of the handsome Spaniard, as beautiful as his mother, slender, dark complexioned ; fiery, though cowardly and prodigal of tears ; vicious from the maternal side — in short, a rebellious, tensely organized Castil- ian. But he was too like his mother, too Mexican, to satisfy the father’s yearning for parts of his own soul in his son. This yearning only deepened through lack of positive satiety. And Braunig was one of those who must love to live, and loving, must have requital. Although Francisco adored him. the love was unnaturally fierce and ani mal. Neither wife nor son satisfied the crying of his soul: some essen tial forbade. Xow, at the expiration of eight years of married life, Braunig reviewed the sad story. Unresisted, the chapters of his life swept upon him. He and Maria had been shuffled together by a malignant fate; and their subsequent marriage, a heathen technicality, had torn them asunder for all time, while it tortured them with life together in the same prison-house. At first inscrutable in her complexities, Maria was unriddled. After time had released her from womanly restraint, and marriage had lost its glamor, she confessed her character by daily abandon to petty singularities of disposition. Hers was a soul of con trary spiritual subtleties, each crying for a separate destiny. She was given a nature of inexorable differences, each of which impotently fought for supremacy in her spiritual environment and maddened their unfortunate victim through her sheer helplessness to combat them. In consequence, Braunig failed utterly to meet her vexatious demands; and, as he found less pleasure than formerly in adjusting himself to her vagaries, — as her complex nature correspondingly reacted, he suffered with an accelerated poignancy, both of body and of spirit. Long since he might have escaped the bitter labor of life, but strong paternal instincts combatted his impulse to flee the country. Maria he could sacrifice, but not the boy. The great ranch was nothing, the country was nothing; Francisco was everything. In the boy’s life Braunig found the excuse for his own. The mere thought that this was his own blood, his only begotten, bound him indis- solubly to Old Mexico. “The boy is mine,” he would say in such moments ; “God knows I can’t afford to quit right now.” He could not suffer the thought of leaving him to Maria for education, and it was now about time to commence. When he thought of it, the possible cruelties of a second husband overwhelmed him : it could not be. Desertion was a step too decisive, too fraught with terrible consequences. One late afternoon Braunig approached the Hacienda del Maguey, riding steadily out from the shadow of Mount Orizabo. The sun wheeled along the mountain tops, paused a moment, then slipped behind into the champagne seas of Mexican sunset. The horseman raised his head, discovering a face of bronzed and bony statuary. Just then a rank “norther” slapped it, but there was no sign. The careful, slow- moving eyes, the cheeks filled with shadow, the whole incisive face revealed the effect of severely prolonged disaster — probably spiritual. Braunig wore conventional clothes, carried his legs in blowsy chaps, and frequently beat the pony with a stiff quirt, or dug a roweled heel. The hacienda, squatting low in a yard filled with maguey plants, presently rose before him. Its sinister ugliness sustained his mood. He hated the barrenness of adobe houses, both outside and in. “Martina,” he called, hitching up at the gate. “Si, Sefior,” preceded a greasy figure answering the call. “Take Roan out to the pens and give him a couple of quarts of corn; half a morrall will do,” he said. “That’s all.” There had been no “worms” on the range today; nor were there signs among the young colts of new depredations from the mountain lions. But there had been a letter whose edges were black. Braunig’s father was dead. As he entered the yard he heard a clinking of glass among the maguey plants. Francisco played with bottle horses. Through a closed window Maria smiled at him, tapping a window-stick on the pane, as if to caution the boy against mischief. The stiff “norther,” salted with snow, pricked small pimples on his bare legs and hoisted his scanty fillibeg round his navel. He seemed not to notice the cold, but busied himself with playing. Nearby lay a shiny hand-axe, obvi ously from a choice set of tools. A gap chipped its contour: perhaps the boy had broken it there. . It was little matter — to the boy, who strangled his horses with a string, clinking them spitefully, and com muning audibly with himself. Suddenly he jerked his head, his round eyes unbudging. Braunig stood beside him. “Hello, Sonny,” said he, patting him on the head, glad to forget the death-missive he carried. “Howdy, Papa,” returned the boy ; “I’ve been a good boy today.” “Yes; why coddlings, why are you naked this way?” “To be playing.” And his dark head rolled gravely, the eyes remaining fixed on his father. “Well, cut along now and jump into some clothes,” said he laughing. “It’s not cold to little boys,” assured Francisco. Then, a moment later: “Why, Papa?” “So we can see Mama. You’re not a little man with just that slip on.” He pinched the tanned cheek. “She don’t want to see us much, I reckon; not you, an’ I ast her, too.” “Well, well,” said Braunig, taking the boy’s hand; “we’ll go in now.” “Don’t make me, please; I’m not through playing, anyhow.” “Come along, Sonny,” very firmly. “I ain’t,” said the boy, spraddling wide his legs. “What’s this? Will you mind me or not?” Braunig spoke quite sternly. “I ain’t,” reaffirmed the boy with a look toward the window. “How’s this? Cut along now, don’t be fooling this way.” Braunig, vexed at this defiance, which ever sprang up intermittently, grabbed the flying tail of the fillibeg, and dragged the boy toward the house. “Come along with you, come along.” “Can’t I take my time ?” whined the boy ; “can’t I-I- ?” He fought every step of the way, momently casting furtive glances to the window. Braunig’s eye dropped to the hand-axe. He valued little more than his cabinet of well-cared-for tools. Francisco, sensing danger, immediately ripped through his sack and bolted. He was arrested instantly by his father, who jerked him about-face to judgment. “Young man,” he said sternly, pointing a finger at the broken axe, “what does this mean?” “I don’t know, I don’t know,” screamed the frantic urchin, break ing into tears. “You’ll make me cry-y-y !” “What does this mean?” thundered Braunig. “Now, tell me!” But Francisco, instead of making answer, violently kicked his father. Then, with Mexican precision and treachery, he doubled a stinging blow to his belly. Braunig could with difficulty restrain his amusement; but, know ing well enough what such a practice uncensured would lead to, he deliberately smote the boy with the palm of the hand. The blow was light and futile. Yet Francisco grovelled in the dirt, completely broken. “I would not have — I was try-ying — to be — good.” He spoke sobbingly. “I’ll mind if — I’ll mind, if, if — ” His voice broke to a long wail. Then his face, turned past Braunig toward the house, lighted yellowishly as if with new hope. Once more he stabbed his father with a pudgy fist. The quick patter of sandaled feet prevented a second chastisement from the father. Maria stood behind him, her face livid with mingled fear and anger. Her strained body, tense and forward, cursed and implored him. “You have no earthly right to hurt my boy ; let him be !” she screeched into his ear. The father’s temper, if in the least ruffled, reacted from this new flood, and was under perfect control. “I did have a right to hurt him,” he said quietly. “You saw what he did.” Francisco clung to his mother’s dress. “Now, Maria,” resumed Braunig; “we are bound to do something pretty quick — before it is too late. Why, at this rate, the poor kid’s going to the dogs.” “Do you want me to do something?” she mocked. “Are you quite sure ?” Braunig looked round for Francisco. He had gone. Then he continued without anger: “Yes, something has to be done mighty quick. This isn’t any way for a young one to treat his father; you know that yourself. Can’t you understand I want him to sort of love and respect me?” “But he hates you now,” she laughed in triumph. “Did you not beat him? He loves me . . .” “I whipped him, Maria, simply because he wouldn’t mind me. Why, I’d rather see him in his grave than go on this way, and you know it.” “Francisco! So good, so pure! San Francisco!” “Sure, Maria. You are not half fair ; now confess you are not.” Her lips twitched, but said nothing. “Maria, you know Francisco is not a saint any more than I am. Sometimes he isn’t even a good boy.” She tried to speak, but failed in a fit of passion. Her shadowy face lit up with sullen coals. “Francisco !” Then, with bared teeth, she cut him: “So I’m the liar and you’re the white man!” “O hell ! Don’t tempt me that way, Maria. Some day” — his jaws tightened powerfully — “some day you’ll drive me mad, and then I’ll — ” “You will, will you? What will you do?” She gripped her thin hands. “And I, I shall inform the rurales. I reckon they’d fix the Serior, all right.” “Please listen to me, Maria, just a word more.” She raised both hands with trembling fingers. “I know that we have got to live together, perhaps till the end,” Braunig went on, harshly impassive, “but to save the kid’s life, let’s live in peace.” For the first time he betrayed the depth of his emotion : “Live yourself, but for Christ’s sake, let me live too. The kid is ours, and—” The words were hushed by Maria, who suddenly plunged her fin gers into his face. Then she ran to the hacienda, and, disappearing in the doorway, she called softly a name. At once the slight figure of Francisco sprinted over the yard, from its hiding place, the while throwing sidelong glances at Braunig. Meanwhile the father stood alone over the bottle horses, still hold ing the fillabeg in his hand. He did not see Francisco, nor did he hear the call. Even the violence of Maria, both of speech and action, did not concern him at this moment. He was ruminating how utterly lost to the world he was, to the old ambitions and his kind, and all that made the grandeur of those other days. And his hand sought the black-rimmed letter, which he silently drew forth, then replaced very soon without looking at it. For the first time broke full upon him the terrible realization that something irrevocable had been allowed, if not achieved, by his voluntary exile from home. It was one of those great moments when the futile march of a soul is suddenly brought to a standstill, and made to know its delinquency. His family was lost entirely now, save he, whom not the grave could lose more effectually than his present status. But as he was the last of them, it made little difference. The estate where he was bred, and which he hoped in time to resuscitate, had passed with his father; and now, from the blasted hope of ever returning to the States, he fell back to the little his life had vouchsafed him. Of all the blows cal culated to hurt man, that which strikes with absolute force is the ulti mate knowledge that a loved woman is false; but of more vital con sequence than this is the torture of enforced intimacy with the false woman. A little thing, however, may often protract so great a torture indefinitely. In the case of Braunig, it promised to be his child. Eight years, it is true, had taken from him more than the same number had left; but what they had left — his son Francisco — was at present of more value than all they had taken. Still, his heart pleaded for the love of his Spanish wife, and the only answer was her mockery. She had no longer a love for him, nor faith in his purposes ; these mighty incentives to glory were not grant ed him. If she might care a bit when she heard of the old man’s death, or merely listen, and tell him how sorry she was to know he had gone and left them no blessing — if she would not laugh, as probably she would ; if she could understand that tears of sympathy alleviate the agony of woe …. No, she should not be told his secret sorrow. Presently he entered the hacienda. A fire lighted the front room, and two chairs stood before it, one at either side of the hearth. The symbolism of the two chairs, alien ated one from the other, and far apart, smote him heavily. He paused between them, his head falling to the mantel. Francisco’s cat purred against him sympathetically. Yet, somehow it was not home. The kid! — God, if it were not for the kid! A low cry came from the bed room — from the child. After a space, interminable it seemed, he heard a voice speaking to him ; it had spoken forever, though he had only begun to hear the words. He turned round to face Maria. Her eyes glinted immeasur able coldness — the very eyes which had won him when they rippled with light, or frighted innocently before his ardent gaze. Now they were dead and unseeing. He who had lived for their love had missed it all. Maria spoke slowly, decisively, as one speaking a death sentence. “I have put him to bed,” she was saying in a still voice. “I have told him all there was to be told.” Braunig looked at her. Had this woman ever been beautiful? He eyed the quick features; they revealed nothing save a malign aspect; dark face, bulbous nose, and vacant luminous eyes. She was like Fran cisco, something like him ; but he shuddered to think his child was born of this woman. She seemed … he could not phrase his exe cration. “There is no supper tonight.” she had commenced anew. “And you may sleep in the servant’s bed — if you wish to sleep. The blood — It’s time to stop — Francisco will see you hereafter as you really are — I mean in your true relation to him, which you do not know. I might have told you before if I had not felt — wanted — you — to love me. I did — one time. I hate you now — God ! I hate you. T — I wanted you to love, love me though. He — Francisco — he is not of your blood, so it is better — the blood — ” Insensate with apprehension, Braunig: “Woman, woman, what are you saying? Do you — tell me — Not my son! — Can you mean that?” She answered a few words without emotion. Her lips seemed not to unclose ; nor was her speech bitter, only brief.

 

Arthur Wilson.

 

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