The Folly of Others/The Forbidden
OVER the wall of the Mission, against the glowing west, the tops of the trees flickered in the wind from the sea, shot through with level glancing arrows of clear light. The sky was all astir with little soft, gold-tipped clouds. To the languid hush of the hot day had succeeded a subtle animation like the smile on the lips of a sleeping woman.
On this awakening air the last organ-notes of the vesper service died away, and were echoed by the slow, rhythmic swing of the tall eucalyptus trees. The rustle of the leaves imitated the sound of the devout dispersing from the chapel; and a magnolia shook out from its great white chalices an incense more penetrating than any wafted before the altar. Suddenly all this gentle derision seemed to voice itself in a burst of mocking laughter, faint and far away, like the airy merriment of elves. The sound approached and grew louder, running through the notes of a treble scale. And the trees in the monks' garden seemed to bend and listen and to beckon while they shook all over with malicious glee.
Scurrying over the ground beyond, with bare, dusty feet, appeared a group of creatures pulling each other by extended arms or brown garments which seemed a part of the earth, or by their braids of strong, black hair. Writhing in this rough play they flung themselves against the wall. A pale-faced girl in a scarlet blouse, like a cactus-flower bursting from its dull sheath, threw up her arms into the dense, dark foliage of an overhanging fig-tree and dragged down the bough.
"They are ripe!—what did I tell you?" she cried, as at a touch a purple, bloomy fig fell into her hand. She tore it open and fastened her teeth, sharp and white as those of a squirrel, in the pink flesh.
Her companions hung back, looking at her.
"If we are caught——"
"What do we care? Cowards? There—now you can put all the blame on me. Eat, then, little pigs that you are!"
Her heavy-lidded eyes were cold and contemptuously smiling. Hanging to the bough with both hands, she shook it roughly, and the ripe figs fell in a shower, some flattening to pulp on the ground. The girls flung themselves down, and, chattering, gathered the unspoiled fruit into the skirts of their gowns.
"It is true; they are better than ours," cried one.
"Trust the holy fathers to have the best," added another, lowering her voice.
"They taste better," said Fiora, the tall girl in the scarlet blouse, "because we are stealing them." And she licked her red lips with satisfaction.
"There must be better ones higher up," said a fourth greedily, standing with her hands on her broad hips and her head thrown back.
"Let us see," responded Fiora.
Again she caught hold of the drooping branch, drew herself up, and in an instant the thick foliage hid her from sight. Her companions, half-smothered with laughter, besought her to return.
"Oh, if you are seen!"
"Catch!" cried Fiora.
A rain of soft bodies fell, thumping them about the shoulders. Through the parted leaves an impudent face looked down, framed like a young faun's in living green.
"I am going higher—I am going to look into the garden!"
"Oh! Oh!" in frightened and delightful chorus. "You dare not!"
"Listen, my children," said Fiora condescendingly. "They say no woman has ever seen this garden. Well, I have a great mind to be the first!"
Lying along the thick branch, she listened smilingly.
"It is forbidden!"
"You will be punished!"
"The holy fathers——"
"What have they in their garden," she cried at last, "that is so sacred that we may not see it? Would our feet soil the grass or the paths?"
The girls looked at one another slyly and hid their faces; and their malicious laughter, stifled with difficulty and uncontrollable, mingled again with the eager murmurs of the trees.
Fiora, herself laughing, she scarcely knew why, disappeared, the leaves closing behind her like a green sea. She crept along the great branch until her feet found something firm—the top of the wall. Clinging to the trunk of the tree which leaned against this wall, she tried to pierce the thick layers of foliage below her, but in vain; nothing was to be seen of the garden. She swore softly. Then, in trying to extend herself upon a branch which projected into the garden, she slipped, catching vainly at the nearest twigs, and with a thrill of alarm came to her feet upon the forbidden soil. She clenched her hands, full of bruised leaves, against her breast, as she crouched in the shelter of the drooping boughs. Startled by the noise of her fall, her companions took flight like a covey of birds, with a rustle, a faint murmur—silence.
Fiora sank to her knees and remained for some moments motionless, gazing out into the garden. In the dusk, deepened by the shadow of encircling trees, nothing was visible save narrow paths strewn with opal-colored sea-shells glimmering amid fresh turf, and roses blooming in masses along those walks and hiding the wall under their heavy leaves, thick with flowers like pale flames. Silence—except for the applauding whisper of the trees and the plash of water. There was no one in the garden.
Taking courage, the intruder pushed her way out from under the boughs of the fig-tree. The freshly sprinkled grass caressed her feet. The perfume of the roses and the magnolia blossoms, becoming more intense as the dew began to gather, surrounded her like an invisible presence, seeming to draw her on. She stole softly forward, her eyes alert for the least warning and alive with curiosity. The path led her through an arbor drifted deep with the perfumed snow of wisteria, and between banks of golden pansies set in mosaic borders. At the intersection of this gleaming streak with another a fountain played in a white basin, tossing high in the air a crystal ball. The crest of the plume of water caught a gleam of golden light, and the transparent ball glittered as it rose every instant from shadow. Fiora paused to watch it and to follow the arrowy glidings of the gold-fish in the basin. The short southern twilight was already ended. It was now dark—the hour at which the fathers took their evening meal. Yielding, therefore, to her fancy, she followed the windings of the paths, stopping recklessly to pluck now a scarlet pomegranate, which she ate with puckered lips; now a rose, crimson or yellow, or a long spray of white roses with pink hearts, set close together on the stem. Huge cacti, their gray, distorted bodies spotted with blood-colored blossoms, stood here and there in clumps. Banana trees waved softly their long, graceful fronds. The wind stirred with a dry rustle among palms with broad trunks and large fans, and others, slender and lofty, with crests like stacked swords, and among masses of pampas-grass tufted with great white plumes. Along the wall, to which now and then Fiora's wanderings in the confined space brought her, grew apricot and peach trees heavy with ripe fruit. These perfect sweets also she tasted capriciously and threw away half-eaten. The place exerted a strange influence over her. The hour, the delicious thrill of danger, the heavy perfumes, intoxicated her. It seemed that the trees bent toward her to murmur something, that the pale faces of the flowers held some mysterious message. They looked friendly; they appeared to smile knowingly at her, to encourage her, to urge her on. Vaguely she felt all this breathing, eager life a part of her, belonging to her. She threw back her head, turning it from side to side with an air of satisfied possession, drawing in the cool air through her nostrils and parted lips with sensuous delight—this pale creature whose eyes showed a savage response to the cajoling beauty about her.
Convinced at last that the garden held no secret, save that of certain flowers and fruits cultivated to unknown perfection,—for she had explored it from the limiting wall to where the pallid outline of some building of the Mission gleamed through the trees,—she came back to the fountain and sat down on the wooden bench at the path's edge, her flowers heaped in her lap. She gave herself a few moments more to watch the leaping ball, which now sparkled like silver in the midst of glittering spray. A shaft of moonlight, striking through the trees upon the jet of water, crept steadily downward. The girl, her eyes fixed on this trembling column of white fire and foam, fell into a vague, trance-like dream. The ripple of the fountain in her ears drowned the echo of slow footsteps advancing along the path.
It was Father Anselmo's custom, after his supper of meat pasty and chocolate, to pace the garden, whose beauty seldom failed to inspire him with poetical images and to add each evening some dozen lines to his panegyric ode on Saint Francis. Anselmo was, in fact, a poet—but a poet whose strictly regulated fancy never openly strayed beyond the confines of the cloister. His gentle muse sang consecrated themes alone. And if, surrounded by an indolent veiled fervor of tropical nature, apt to long arid trances, and to sudden outbursts of fierce luxuriance, his imagination was sometimes troubled, these secret vagaries were repressed or found no acknowledged utterance. In his black shapeless robe, above which his placid face showed like a sickly moon, the father, whether meditating on the pasty or Saint Francis, seemed no prey to the poetic ardor; its afflatus left him undizzied and peaceful. Yet the mystery of the night, the garden's magic, must have struck some responsive chord within him. For how else should his bodily eyes have beheld beneath the shadow of the acacia bushes a creature not human, surely not divine; no spiritual vision, but an apparition born of the earth and evil. It sat half-visible, buried to the chin in flowers, motionless, its face a mere pale shimmer, its great shadowy eyes fixed upon him. These eyes were terrifying.
Anselmo retreated some steps upon their discovery; then, after much hesitation, advanced again, extending the cross of his rosary and muttering with trembling lips certain words of proved potency. But neither holy symbol nor exorcism availed against the evil spirit. It refused to flee; sat dumb—it seemed to Anselmo disdainful. Suddenly wrathful, he took another step forward; the creature drew in its breath sharply, with an audible sound; its lips parted, showing a row of gleaming teeth. Anselmo paused.
This was, he perceived, the spirit of the garden, and it was plainly hostile. Was he, then, the intruder? Vaguely a sense of helpless fright invaded his soul. Yes, the trees were in league with this being; they bent towards him threateningly! The air was full of veiled alarms. What of the rose bushes which even now reached out clutching hands to detain him? An overblown white rose broke and fell in a soft shower about his shoulders, and he started; a bat swooped down with swift, filmy wings, just grazing his head; he shrank back.
Could it be that he was in danger, that his wandering thoughts were known, that his sinful fancies had thus taken shape to confound him? Anselmo crossed himself. It was true—moved by the garden's spell he had sometime in reverie invoked the animating principle of this beauty of earth, which he knew well was soulless and evil—and behold it incarnate!
Yet the apparition did not menace him overtly; perhaps it felt his spirit was armor proof. Nevertheless, it was his part to fly possible danger, to deliver over the unhallowed domain to its true possessor. What part had he in these caresses of the breeze, these wooings of flowers, these marriages of insects, this glamor of nocturnal magic?
Knowing, as he did, the evil power of the moon at its full, how had he been persuaded to walk in debatable ground where that demoniac glory, rising warm and wanton above the trees, could mock and threaten him? Under the branches of the acacia the shadow sat still in deeper shadow; save that the rays of the moon fell upon two slim, naked feet, which the short grass could not cover. It had taken, then, the form of a woman, that the garden and its tradition might be doubly desecrated! Anselmo's indignation was not fierce enough to nerve his soul, weakened by mystic terrors. He turned to fly, but, instead, uttered an exclamation, calling in a trembling voice.
"I am coming," was the answer.
Another black robe, another pale face, appeared beside him, and, like him, started back at perceiving the strange figure. After consultation in whispers the bolder monk approached the acacia.
"This is no spirit, Brother Anselmo—it is a woman!" he cried.
"A woman! How could a woman get into the garden?"
The first speaker cast a troubled glance in the direction of the high wall.
"True," he said uncertainly. "Still it must be."
But involuntarily he moved a step nearer his companion.
Both glanced down at the slender feet in the grass. These seemed to move, and the spirit, or woman, turned her head swiftly from side to side. Her breath came quicker, but the monks could not hear it, or they might have taken courage.
"It is astonishing," murmured Brother Emanuel uneasily.
While they stood undecided between the attack and the retreat, suddenly from the chapel near by the organ gave voice in a deep, swelling chord, which climbed by subtle and suave modulations and soared aloft into a tender melody.
"It is Brother Angelo," whispered Anselmo.
"It is holy music!" said Emanuel devoutly, and he made the sign of the cross in the air before him.
The tremulous notes, growing louder, drowned the rustle of the leaves, the plash of the fountain, the sigh of the wind. It seemed as though the garden hushed half-unwillingly to listen, when a voice, humanly deep and sweet, but spiritualized into some thing not less than divine, took up the melody and bore it higher and heavenward, pouring out into the night a flood of ecstasy and aspiration. The march of the music was solemn and splendid, and its soul was a joy unearthly and beyond utterance.
The black-robed brothers stood and listened, rebuked and dumb, turning their faces toward the glimmering wall of the chapel, and forgetting for a moment the fears which had agitated them, with their cause. What were all the potencies of the passionate earth, so easily diverted from good, against this royal dominion?
The evil-seeming spell was broken. A sudden movement, no sound, but a stirring of the air, recalled their attention. The foliage of the acacia trembled as though a bird had taken wing. The bench was vacant, flowers strewed the ground before it, the presence had vanished. Her white feet or a breath of air had borne her away. The diapason of the organ drowned the sound her flight might have made; and the trees bent as though to bury in shadow her possible path. Emanuel made a long step forward.
"Woman or spirit, she is gone!" he cried, and stooped to see what trace of her those scattered roses might show. Anselmo grasped his companion's sleeve.
"Do not touch them," he entreated, glancing fearfully over his shoulder. "Who knows what spell is upon them?"
True, when found next morning, withered and scentless, these flowers appeared commonplace enough. Nor did there exist other proof that on this spot two brothers of the order had beheld a strange and dangerous vision. None the less was their sober account accepted implicitly by the brethren, of whom the wiser ever thereafter avoided to walk in the garden at the moon's full; though certain of the more youthful were known to adventure themselves at that place and season.
It is not recorded that their daring and zeal met with any reward or recognition. Nor, perhaps, is this to be wondered at. For if any wandering spirit, coveting, yet not daring to enter the garden, had strayed near to the confining wall, it must have heard the solemn chant of the Church's exorcism directed against all powers unholy; it must have beheld a slow procession of monks make the circuit of the shell-strewn paths, sprinkling the ground with holy-water to purify it from the contaminating touch of a woman's foot. And if, spirit or woman, it were still undeterred, there was Angelo's music at evening—like another flaming sword at the gate of this Eveless Eden!