From: The Crusade Of The Excelsior
When James Hurlstone reached the shelter of the shrubbery he leaned
exhaustedly against the adobe wall, and looked back upon the garden
he had just traversed. At its lower extremity a tall hedge of cactus
reinforced the crumbling wall with a cheval de frise of bristling
thorns; it was through a gap in this green barrier that he had found his
way a few hours before, as his torn clothes still testified. At one side
ran the low wall of the Alcalde's casa, a mere line of dark shadow in
that strange diaphanous mist that seemed to suffuse all objects. The
gnarled and twisted branches of pear-trees, gouty with old age, bent
so low as to impede any progress under their formal avenues; out of a
tangled labyrinth of figtrees, here and there a single plume of feathery
palm swam in a drowsy upper radiance. The shrubbery around him, of some
unknown variety, exhaled a faint perfume; he put out his hand to grasp
what appeared to be a young catalpa, and found it the trunk of an
enormous passion vine, that, creeping softly upward, had at last invaded
the very belfry of the dim tower above him; and touching it, his soul
seemed to be lifted with it out of the shadow.
The great hush and quiet that had fallen like a benediction on every
sleeping thing around him; the deep and passionless repose that seemed
to drop from the bending boughs of the venerable trees; the cool,
restful, earthy breath of the shadowed mold beneath him, touched only by
a faint jessamine-like perfume as of a dead passion, lulled the hurried
beatings of his heart and calmed the feverish tremor of his limbs. He
allowed himself to sink back against the wall, his hands tightly clasped
before him. Gradually, the set, abstracted look of his eyes faded and
became suffused, as if moistened by that celestial mist. Then he rose
quickly, drew his sleeve hurriedly across his lashes, and began slowly
to creep along the wall again.
Either the obscurity of the shrubbery became greater or he was growing
preoccupied; but in steadying himself by the wall he had, without
perceiving it, put his hand upon a rude door that, yielding to his
pressure, opened noiselessly into a dark passage. Without apparent
reflection he entered, followed the passage a few steps until it turned
abruptly; turning with it, he found himself in the body of the Mission
Church of Todos Santos. A swinging-lamp, that burned perpetually before
an effigy of the Virgin Mother, threw a faint light on the single
rose-window behind the high altar; another, suspended in a low archway,
apparently lit the open door of the passage towards the refectory. By
the stronger light of the latter Hurlstone could see the barbaric red
and tarnished gold of the rafters that formed the straight roof. The
walls were striped with equally bizarre coloring, half Moorish and half
Indian. A few hangings of dyed and painted cloths with heavy fringes
were disposed on either side of the chancel, like the flaps of a wigwam;
and the aboriginal suggestion was further repeated in a quantity of
colored beads and sea-shells that decked the communion-rails. The
Stations of the Cross, along the walls, were commemorated by paintings,
evidently by a native artist--to suit the same barbaric taste; while a
larger picture of San Francisco d'Assisis, under the choir, seemed
to belong to an older and more artistic civilization. But the sombre
half-light of the two lamps mellowed and softened the harsh contrast of
these details until the whole body of the church appeared filled with a
vague harmonious shadow. The air, heavy with the odors of past incense,
seemed to be a part of that expression, as if the solemn and sympathetic
twilight became palpable in each deep, long-drawn inspiration.
Again overcome by the feeling of repose and peacefulness, Hurlstone sank
upon a rude settle, and bent his head and folded arms over a low railing
before him. How long he sat there, allowing the subtle influence to
transfuse and possess his entire being, he did not know. The faint
twitter of birds suddenly awoke him. Looking up, he perceived that it
came from the vacant square of the tower above him, open to the night
and suffused with its mysterious radiance. In another moment the roof of
the church was swiftly crossed and recrossed with tiny and adventurous
wings. The mysterious light had taken an opaline color. Morning was
The slow rustling of a garment, accompanied by a soft but heavy tread,
sounded from the passage. He started to his feet as the priest, whom
he had seen on the deck of the Excelsior, entered the church from the
refectory. The Padre was alone. At the apparition of a stranger, torn
and disheveled, he stopped involuntarily and cast a hasty look towards
the heavy silver ornaments on the altar. Hurlstone noticed it, and
"Don't alarm yourself. I only sought this place for shelter."
He spoke in French--the language he had heard Padre Esteban address to
Mrs. Brimmer. But the priest's quick eye had already detected his own
mistake. He lifted his hand with a sublime gesture towards the altar,
"You are right! Where should you seek shelter but here?"
The reply was so unexpected that Hurlstone was silent. His lips quivered
"And if it were SANCTUARY I was seeking?" he said.
"You would first tell me why you sought it," said Padre Esteban gently.
Hurlstone looked at him irresolutely for a moment and then said, with
the hopeless desperation of a man anxious to anticipate his fate,--
"I am a passenger on the ship you boarded yesterday. I came ashore with
the intention of concealing myself somewhere here until she had sailed.
When I tell you that I am not a fugitive from justice, that I have
committed no offense against the ship or her passengers, nor have I
any intention of doing so, but that I only wish concealment from their
knowledge for twenty-four hours, you will know enough to understand that
you run no risk in giving me assistance. I can tell you no more."
"I did not see you with the other passengers, either on the ship or
ashore," said the priest. "How did you come here?"
"I swam ashore before they left. I did not know they had any idea of
landing here; I expected to be the only one, and there would have been
no need for concealment then. But I am not lucky," he added, with a
The priest glanced at his garments, which bore the traces of the sea,
but remained silent.
"Do you think I am lying?"
The old priest lifted his head with a gesture.
"Not to me--but to God!"
The young man followed the gesture, and glanced around the barbaric
church with a slight look of scorn. But the profound isolation, the
mystic seclusion, and, above all, the complete obliteration of that
world and civilization he shrank from and despised, again subdued and
overcame his rebellious spirit. He lifted his eyes to the priest.
"Nor to God," he said gravely.
"Then why withhold anything from Him here?" said the priest gently.
"I am not a Catholic--I do not believe in confession," said Hurlstone
doggedly, turning aside.
But Padre Esteban laid his large brown hand on the young man's shoulder.
Touched by some occult suggestion in its soft contact, he sank again
into his seat.
"Yet you ask for the sanctuary of His house--a sanctuary bought by that
contrition whose first expression is the bared and open soul! To the
first worldly shelter you sought--the peon's hut or the Alcalde's
casa--you would have thought it necessary to bring a story. You would
not conceal from the physician whom you asked for balsam either the
wound, the symptoms, or the cause? Enough," he said kindly, as Hurlstone
was about to reply. "You shall have your request. You shall stay here. I
will be your physician, and will salve your wounds; if any poison I know
not of rankle there, you will not blame me, son, but perhaps you will
assist me to find it. I will give you a secluded cell in the dormitory
until the ship has sailed. And then"--
He dropped quietly on the settle, took the young man's hand paternally
in his own, and gazed into his eyes as if he read his soul.
And then . . . Ah, yes . . . What then? Hurlstone glanced once more
around him. He thought of the quiet night; of the great peace that had
fallen upon him since he had entered the garden, and the promise of
a greater peace that seemed to breathe with the incense from those
venerable walls. He thought of that crumbling barrier, that even in its
ruin seemed to shut out, more completely than anything he had conceived,
his bitter past, and the bitter world that recalled it. He thought of
the long days to come, when, forgetting and forgotten, he might find a
new life among these simple aliens, themselves forgotten by the world.
He had thought of this once before in the garden; it occurred to him
again in this Lethe-like oblivion of the little church, in the kindly
pressure of the priest's hand. The ornaments no longer looked
uncouth and barbaric--rather they seemed full of some new spiritual
significance. He suddenly lifted his eyes to Padre Esteban, and, half
rising to his feet, said,--
"Are we alone?"
"We are; it is a half-hour yet before mass," said the priest.
"My story will not last so long," said the young man hurriedly, as if
fearing to change his mind. "Hear me, then--it is no crime nor offense
to any one; more than that, it concerns no one but myself--it is of"--
"A woman," said the priest softly. "So! we will sit down, my son."
He lifted his hand with a soothing gesture--the movement of a physician
who has just arrived at an easy diagnosis of certain uneasy symptoms.
There was also a slight suggestion of an habitual toleration, as if
even the seclusion of Todos Santos had not been entirely free from the
invasion of the primal passion.
Hurlstone waited for an instant, but then went on rapidly.
"It is of a woman, who has cursed my life, blasted my prospects, and
ruined my youth; a woman who gained my early affection only to blight
and wither it; a woman who should be nearer to me and dearer than all
else, and yet who is further than the uttermost depths of hell from me
in sympathy or feeling; a woman that I should cleave to, but from whom
I have been flying, ready to face shame, disgrace, oblivion, even that
death which alone can part us: for that woman is--my wife."
He stopped, out of breath, with fixed eyes and a rigid mouth. Father
Esteban drew a snuff-box from his pocket, and a large handkerchief.
After blowing his nose violently, he took a pinch of snuff, wiped his
lip, and replaced the box.
"A bad habit, my son," he said apologetically, "but an old man's
weakness. Go on."
"I met her first five years ago--the wife of another man. Don't misjudge
me, it was no lawless passion; it was a friendship, I believed, due to
her intellectual qualities as much as to her womanly fascinations; for I
was a young student, lodging in the same house with her, in an academic
town. Before I ever spoke to her of love, she had confided to me her own
unhappiness--the uncongeniality of her married life, the harshness, and
even brutality, of her husband. Even a man less in love than I was could
have seen the truth of this--the contrast of the coarse, sensual, and
vulgar man with an apparently refined and intelligent woman; but any one
else except myself would have suspected that such a union was not
merely a sacrifice of the woman. I believed her. It was not until long
afterwards that I learned that her marriage had been a condonation of
her youthful errors by a complaisant bridegroom; that her character
had been saved by a union that was a mutual concession. But I loved her
madly; and when she finally got a divorce from her uncongenial husband,
I believed it less an expression of her love for me than an act of
justice. I did not know at the time that they had arranged the divorce
together, as they had arranged their marriage, by equal concessions.
"I was the only son of a widowed mother, whose instincts were from
the first opposed to my friendship with this woman, and what she
prophetically felt would be its result. Unfortunately, both she and my
friends were foolish enough to avow their belief that the divorce was
obtained solely with a view of securing me as a successor; and it
was this argument more than any other that convinced me of my duty to
protect her. Enough, I married, not only in spite of all opposition--but
BECAUSE of it.
"My mother would have reconciled herself to the marriage, but my wife
never forgave the opposition, and, by some hellish instinct divining
that her power over me might be weakened by maternal influence,
precipitated a quarrel which forever separated us. With the little
capital left by my father, divided between my mother and myself, I took
my wife to a western city. Our small income speedily dwindled under
the debts of her former husband, which she had assumed to purchase
her freedom. I endeavored to utilize a good education and some
accomplishments in music and the languages by giving lessons and
by contributing to the press. In this my wife first made a show of
assisting me, but I was not long in discovering that her intelligence
was superficial and shallow, and that the audacity of expression,
which I had believed to be originality of conviction, was simply
shamelessness, and a desire for notoriety. She had a facility in writing
sentimental poetry, which had been efficacious in her matrimonial
confidences, but which editors of magazines and newspapers found to be
shallow and insincere. To my astonishment, she remained unaffected
by this, as she was equally impervious to the slights and sneers that
continually met us in society. At last the inability to pay one of her
former husband's claims brought to me a threat and an anonymous letter.
I laid them before her, when a scene ensued which revealed the
blindness of my folly in all its hideous hopelessness: she accused me of
complicity in her divorce, and deception in regard to my own fortune. In
a speech, whose language was a horrible revelation of her early habits,
she offered to arrange a divorce from me as she had from her former
husband. She gave as a reason her preference for another, and her belief
that the scandal of a suit would lend her a certain advertisement and
prestige. It was a combination of Messalina and Mrs. Jarley"--
"Pardon! I remember not a Madame Jarley," said the priest.
"Of viciousness and commercial calculation," continued Hurlstone
hurriedly. "I don't remember what happened; she swore that I struck
her! Perhaps--God knows! But she failed, even before a western jury, to
convict me of cruelty. The judge that thought me half insane would not
believe me brutal, and her application for divorce was lost.
"I need not tell you that the same friends who had opposed my marriage
now came forward to implore me to allow her to break our chains. I
refused. I swear to you it was from no lingering love for her, for her
presence drove me mad; it was from no instinct of revenge or jealousy,
for I should have welcomed the man who would have taken her out of
my life and memory. But I could not bear the idea of taking her first
husband's place in her hideous comedy; I could not purchase my freedom
at that price--at any price. I was told that I could get a divorce
against HER, and stand forth before the world untrammeled and unstained.
But I could not stand before MYSELF in such an attitude. I knew that
the shackles I had deliberately forged could not be loosened except by
death. I knew that the stains of her would cling to me and become a part
of my own sin, even as the sea I plunged into yesterday to escape her,
though it has dried upon me, has left its bitter salt behind.
"When she knew my resolve, she took her revenge by dragging my name
through the successive levels to which she descended. Under the plea
that the hardly-earned sum I gave to her maintenance apart from me was
not sufficient, she utilized her undoubted beauty and more doubtful
talent in amateur entertainments--and, finally, on the stage. She was
openly accompanied by her lover, who acted as her agent, in the hope
of goading me to a divorce. Suddenly she disappeared. I thought she had
forgotten me. I obtained an honorable position in New York. One night
I entered a theater devoted to burlesque opera and the exhibition of
a popular actress, known as the Western Thalia, whose beautiful and
audaciously draped figure was the talk of the town. I recognized my wife
in this star of nudity; more than that, she recognized me. The next day,
in addition to the usual notice, the real name of the actress was given
in the morning papers, with a sympathizing account of her romantic and
unfortunate marriage. I renounced my position, and, taking advantage of
an offer from an old friend in California, resolved to join him secretly
there. My mother had died broken-hearted; I was alone in the world. But
my wife discovered my intention; and when I reached Callao, I heard that
she had followed me, by way of the Isthmus of Panama, and that probably
she would anticipate me in Mazatlan, where we were to stop. The thought
of suicide haunted me during the rest of that horrible voyage; only my
belief that she would make it appear as a tacit confession of my guilt
saved me from that last act of weakness."
He stopped and shuddered. Padre Esteban again laid his hand softly upon
"It was God who spared you that sacrifice of soul and body," he said
"I thought it was God that suggested to me to take the SIMULATION of
that act the means of separating myself from her forever. When we neared
Mazatlan, I conceived the idea of hiding myself in the hold of the
Excelsior until she had left that port, in the hope that it would be
believed that I had fallen overboard. I succeeded in secreting myself,
but was discovered at the same time that the unexpected change in the
ship's destination rendered concealment unnecessary. As we did not put
in at Mazatlan, nobody suspected my discovery in the hold to be anything
but the accident that I gave it out to be. I felt myself saved the
confrontation of the woman at Mazatlan; but I knew she would pursue me
to San Francisco.
"The strange dispensation of Providence that brought us into this
unknown port gave me another hope of escape and oblivion. While you
and the Commander were boarding the Excelsior, I slipped from the
cabin-window into the water; I was a good swimmer, and reached the shore
in safety. I concealed myself in the ditch of the Presidio until I
saw the passengers' boats returning with them, when I sought the safer
shelter of this Mission. I made my way through a gap in the hedge and
lay under your olive-trees, hearing the voices of my companions, beyond
the walls, till past midnight. I then groped my way along the avenue
of pear-trees till I came to another wall, and a door that opened to my
accidental touch. I entered, and found myself here. You know the rest."
He had spoken with the rapid and unpent fluency of a man who cared more
to relieve himself of an oppressive burden than to impress his auditor;
yet the restriction of a foreign tongue had checked repetition or
verbosity. Without imagination he had been eloquent; without hopefulness
he had been convincing. Father Esteban rose, holding both his hands.
"My son, in the sanctuary which you have claimed there is no divorce.
The woman who has ruined your life could not be your wife. As long as
her first husband lives, she is forever his wife, bound by a tie which
no human law can sever!"
Next: An Open-air Prison
Previous: The Gentle Castaways