Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather

Book Five

Padre MartÍNez


The Old Order

Bishop Latour, with Jacinto, was riding through the mountains on his first official visit to Taos — after Albuquerque, the largest and richest parish in his diocese. Both the priest and people there were hostile to Americans and jealous of interference. Any European, except a Spaniard, was regarded as a gringo. The Bishop had let the parish alone, giving their animosity plenty of time to cool. With Carson’s help he had informed himself fully about conditions there, and about the powerful old priest, Antonio José Martínez, who was ruler in temporal as well as in spiritual affairs. Indeed, before Father Latour’s entrance upon the scene, Martínez had been dictator to all the parishes in northern New Mexico, and the native priests at Santa Fé were all of them under his thumb.

It was common talk that Padre Martínez had instigated the revolt of the Taos Indians five years ago, when Bent, the American Governor, and a dozen other white men were murdered and scalped. Seven of the Taos Indians had been tried before a military court and hanged for the murder, but no attempt had been made to call the plotting priest to account. Indeed, Padre Martínez had managed to profit considerably by the affair.

The Indians who were sentenced to death had sent for their Padre and begged him to get them out of the trouble he had got them into. Martínez promised to save their lives if they would deed him their lands, near the pueblo. This they did, and after the conveyance was properly executed the Padre troubled himself no more about the matter, but went to pay a visit at his native town of Abiquiu. In his absence the seven Indians were hanged on the appointed day. Martínez now cultivated their fertile farms, which made him quite the richest man in the parish.

Father Latour had had polite correspondence with Martínez, but had met him only once, on that memorable occasion when the Padre had ridden up from Taos to strengthen the Santa Fé clergy in their refusal to recognize the new Bishop. But he could see him as if that were only yesterday, — the priest of Taos was not a man one would easily forget. One could not have passed him on the street without feeling his great physical force and his imperious will. Not much taller than the Bishop in reality, he gave the impression of being an enormous man. His broad high shoulders were like a bull buffalo’s, his big head was set defiantly on a thick neck, and the full-cheeked, richly coloured, egg-shaped Spanish face — how vividly the Bishop remembered that face! It was so unusual that he would be glad to see it again; a high, narrow forehead, brilliant yellow eyes set deep in strong arches, and full, florid cheeks, — not blank areas of smooth flesh, as in Anglo–Saxon faces, but full of muscular activity, as quick to change with feeling as any of his features. His mouth was the very assertion of violent, uncurbed passions and tyrannical self-will; the full lips thrust out and taut, like the flesh of animals distended by fear or desire.

Father Latour judged that the day of lawless personal power was almost over, even on the frontier, and this figure was to him already like something picturesque and impressive, but really impotent, left over from the past.

The Bishop and Jacinto left the mountains behind them, the trail dropped to a plain covered by clumps of very old sage-brush, with trunks as thick as a man’s leg. Jacinto pointed out a cloud of dust moving rapidly toward them, — a cavalcade of a hundred men or more, Indians and Mexicans, come out to welcome their Bishop with shouting and musketry.

As the horsemen approached, Padre Martínez himself was easily distinguishable — in buckskin breeches, high boots and silver spurs, a wide Mexican hat on his head, and a great black cape wound about his shoulders like a shepherd’s plaid. He rode up to the Bishop and reining in his black gelding, uncovered his head in a broad salutation, while his escort surrounded the churchmen and fired their muskets into the air.

The two priests rode side by side into Los Ranchos de Taos, a little town of yellow walls and winding streets and green orchards. The inhabitants were all gathered in the square before the church. When the Bishop dismounted to enter the church, the women threw their shawls on the dusty pathway for him to walk upon, and as he passed through the kneeling congregation, men and women snatched for his hand to kiss the Episcopal ring. In his own country all this would have been highly distasteful to Jean Marie Latour. Here, these demonstrations seemed a part of the high colour that was in landscape and gardens, in the flaming cactus and the gaudily decorated altars, — in the agonized Christs and dolorous Virgins and the very human figures of the saints. He had already learned that with this people religion was necessarily theatrical.

From Los Ranchos the party rode quickly across the grey plain into Taos itself, to the priest’s house, opposite the church, where a great throng had collected. As the people sank on their knees, one boy, a gawky lad of ten or twelve, remained standing, his mouth open and his hat on his head. Padre Martínez reached over the heads of several kneeling women, snatched off the boy’s cap, and cuffed him soundly about the ears. When Father Latour murmured in protest, the native priest said boldly:

“He is my own son, Bishop, and it is time I taught him manners.”

So this was to be the tune, the Bishop reflected. His well-schooled countenance did not change a shadow as he received this challenge, and he passed on into the Padre’s house. They went at once into Martínez’s study, where they found a young man lying on the floor, fast asleep. He was a very large young man, very stout, lying on his back with his head pillowed on a book, and as he breathed his bulk rose and fell amazingly. He wore a Franciscan’s brown gown, and his hair was clipped short. At sight of the sleeper, Padre Martínez broke into a laugh and gave him a no very gentle kick in the ribs. The fellow got to his feet in great confusion, escaping through a door into the patio.

“You there,” the Padre called after him, “only young men who work hard at night want to sleep in the day! You must have been studying by candle-light. I’ll give you an examination in theology!” This was greeted by a titter of feminine laughter from the windows across the court, where the fugitive took refuge behind a washing hung out to dry. He bent his tall, full figure and disappeared between a pair of wet sheets.

“That was my student, Trinidad,” said Martínez, “a nephew of my old friend Father Lucero, at Arroyo Hondo. He’s a monk, but we want him to take orders. We sent him to the Seminary in Durango, but he was either too homesick or too stupid to learn anything, so I’m teaching him here. We shall make a priest of him one day.”

Father Latour was told to consider the house his own, but he had no wish to. The disorder was almost more than his fastidious taste could bear. The Padre’s study table was sprinkled with snuff, and piled so high with books that they almost hid the crucifix hanging behind it. Books were heaped on chairs and tables all over the house, — and the books and the floors were deep in the dust of spring sand-storms. Father Martínez’s boots and hats lay about in corners, his coats and cassocks were hung on pegs and draped over pieces of furniture. Yet the place seemed over-run by serving-women, young and old, — and by large yellow cats with full soft fur, of a special breed, apparently. They slept in the window-sills, lay on the well-curb in the patio; the boldest came, directly, to the supper-table, where their master fed them carelessly from his plate.

When they sat down to supper, the host introduced to the Bishop the tall, stout young man with the protruding front, who had been asleep on the floor. He said again that Trinidad Lucero was studying with him, and was supposed to be his secretary, — adding that he spent most of his time hanging about the kitchen and hindering the girls at their work.

These remarks were made in the young man’s presence, but did not embarrass him at all. His whole attention was fixed upon the mutton stew, which he began to devour with undue haste as soon as his plate was put before him. The Bishop observed later that Trinidad was treated very much like a poor relation or a servant. He was sent on errands, was told without ceremony to fetch the Padre’s boots, to bring wood for the fire, to saddle his horse. Father Latour disliked his personality so much that he could scarcely look at him. His fat face was irritatingly stupid, and had the grey, oily look of soft cheeses. The corners of his mouth were deep folds in plumpness, like the creases in a baby’s legs, and the steel rim of his spectacles, where it crossed his nose, was embedded in soft flesh. He said not one word during supper, but ate as if he were afraid of never seeing food again. When his attention left his plate for a moment, it was fixed in the same greedy way upon the girl who served the table — and who seemed to regard him with careless contempt. The student gave the impression of being always stupefied by one form of sensual disturbance or another.

Padre Martínez, with a napkin tied round his neck to protect his cassock, ate and drank generously. The Bishop found the food poor enough, despite the many cooks, though the wine, which came from El Paso del Norte, was very fair.

During supper, his host asked the Bishop flatly if he considered celibacy an essential condition of the priest’s vocation.

Father Latour replied merely that this question had been thrashed out many centuries ago and decided once for all.

“Nothing is decided once for all,” Martínez declared fiercely. “Celibacy may be all very well for the French clergy, but not for ours. St. Augustine himself says it is better not to go against nature. I find every evidence that in his old age he regretted having practised continence.”

The Bishop said he would be interested to see the passages from which he drew such conclusions, observing that he knew the writings of St. Augustine fairly well.

“I have the telling passages all written down somewhere. I will find them before you go. You have probably read them with a sealed mind. Celibate priests lose their perceptions. No priest can experience repentance and forgiveness of sin unless he himself falls into sin. Since concupiscence is the most common form of temptation, it is better for him to know something about it. The soul cannot be humbled by fasts and prayer; it must be broken by mortal sin to experience forgiveness of sin and rise to a state of grace. Otherwise, religion is nothing but dead logic.”

“This is a subject upon which we must confer later, and at some length,” said the Bishop quietly. “I shall reform these practices throughout my diocese as rapidly as possible. I hope it will be but a short time until there is not a priest left who does not keep all the vows he took when he bound himself to the service of the altar.”

The swarthy Padre laughed, and threw off the big cat which had mounted to his shoulder. “It will keep you busy, Bishop. Nature has got the start of you here. But for all that, our native priests are more devout than your French Jesuits. We have a living Church here, not a dead arm of the European Church. Our religion grew out of the soil, and has its own roots. We pay a filial respect to the person of the Holy Father, but Rome has no authority here. We do not require aid from the Propaganda, and we resent its interference. The Church the Franciscan Fathers planted here was cut off; this is the second growth, and is indigenous. Our people are the most devout left in the world. If you blast their faith by European formalities, they will become infidels and profligates.”

To this eloquence the Bishop returned blandly that he had not come to deprive the people of their religion, but that he would be compelled to deprive some of the priests of their parishes if they did not change their way of life.

Father Martínez filled his glass and replied with perfect good humour. “You cannot deprive me of mine, Bishop. Try it! I will organize my own church. You can have your French priest of Taos, and I will have the people!”

With this the Padre left the table and stood warming his back at the fire, his cassock pulled up about his waist to expose his trousers to the blaze. “You are a young man, my Bishop,” he went on, rolling his big head back and looking up at the well-smoked roof poles. “And you know nothing about Indians or Mexicans. If you try to introduce European civilization here and change our old ways, to interfere with the secret dances of the Indians, let us say, or abolish the bloody rites of the Penitentes, I foretell an early death for you. I advise you to study our native traditions before you begin your reforms. You are among barbarous people, my Frenchman, between two savage races. The dark things forbidden by your Church are a part of Indian religion. You cannot introduce French fashions here.”

At this moment the student, Trinidad, got up quietly, and after an obsequious bow to the Bishop, went with soft, escaping tread toward the kitchen. When his brown skirt had disappeared through the door, Father Latour turned sharply to his host.

“Martínez, I consider it very unseemly to talk in this loose fashion before young men, especially a young man who is studying for the priesthood. Furthermore, I cannot see why a young man of this calibre should be encouraged to take orders. He will never hold a parish in my diocese.”

Padre Martínez laughed and showed his long, yellow teeth. Laughing did not become him; his teeth were too large — distinctly vulgar. “Oh, Trinidad will go to Arroyo Hondo as curate to his uncle, who is growing old. He’s a very devout fellow, Trinidad. You ought to see him in Passion Week. He goes up to Abiquiu and becomes another man; carries the heaviest crosses to the highest mountains, and takes more scourging than anyone. He comes back here with his back so full of cactus spines that the girls have to pick him like a chicken.”

Father Latour was tired, and went to his room soon after supper. The bed, upon examination, seemed clean and comfortable, but he felt uncertain of its surroundings. He did not like the air of this house. After he retired, the clatter of dish-washing and the giggling of women across the patio kept him awake a long while; and when that ceased, Father Martínez began snoring in some chamber near by. He must have left his door open into the patio, for the adobe partitions were thick enough to smother sound otherwise. The Padre snored like an enraged bull, until the Bishop decided to go forth and find his door and close it. He arose, lit his candle, and opened his own door in half-hearted resolution. As the night wind blew into the room, a little dark shadow fluttered from the wall across the floor; a mouse, perhaps. But no, it was a bunch of woman’s hair that had been indolently tossed into a corner when some slovenly female toilet was made in this room. This discovery annoyed the Bishop exceedingly.

High Mass was at eleven the next morning, the parish priest officiating and the Bishop in the Episcopal chair. He was well pleased with the church of Taos. The building was clean and in good repair, the congregation large and devout. The delicate lace, snowy linen, and burnished brass on the altar told of a devoted Altar Guild. The boys who served at the altar wore rich smocks of hand-made lace over their scarlet cassocks. The Bishop had never heard the Mass more impressively sung than by Father Martínez. The man had a beautiful baritone voice, and he drew from some deep well of emotional power. Nothing in the service was slighted, every phrase and gesture had its full value. At the moment of the Elevation the dark priest seemed to give his whole force, his swarthy body and all its blood, to that lifting-up. Rightly guided, the Bishop reflected, this Mexican might have been a great man. He had an altogether compelling personality, a disturbing, mysterious, magnetic power.

After the confirmation service, Father Martínez had horses brought round and took the Bishop out to see his farms and live-stock. He took him all over his ranches down in the rich bottom lands between Taos and the Indian pueblo which, as Father Latour knew, had come into his possession from the seven Indians who were hanged. Martínez referred carelessly to the Bent massacre as they rode along. He boasted that there had never been trouble afoot in New Mexico that wasn’t started in Taos.

They stopped just west of the pueblo a little before sunset, — a pueblo very different from all the others the Bishop had visited; two large communal houses, shaped like pyramids, gold-coloured in the afternoon light, with the purple mountain lying just behind them. Gold-coloured men in white burnouses came out on the stairlike flights of roofs, and stood still as statues, apparently watching the changing light on the mountain. There was a religious silence over the place; no sound at all but the bleating of goats coming home through clouds of golden dust.

These two houses, the Padre told him, had been continuously occupied by this tribe for more than a thousand years. Coronado’s men found them there, and described them as a superior kind of Indian, handsome and dignified in bearing, dressed in deerskin coats and trousers like those of Europeans.

Though the mountain was timbered, its lines were so sharp that it had the sculptured look of naked mountains like the Sandias. The general growth on its sides was evergreen, but the canyons and ravines were wooded with aspens, so that the shape of every depression was painted on the mountain-side, light green against the dark, like symbols; serpentine, crescent, half-circles. This mountain and its ravines had been the seat of old religious ceremonies, honeycombed with noiseless Indian life, the repository of Indian secrets, for many centuries, the Padre remarked.

“And some place in there, you may be sure, they keep Popé‘s estufa, but no white man will ever see it. I mean the estufa where Popé sealed himself up for four years and never saw the light of day, when he was planning the revolt of 1680. I suppose you know all about that outbreak, Bishop Latour?”

“Something, of course, from the Martyrology. But I did not know that it originated in Taos.”

“Haven’t I just told you that all the trouble there ever was in New Mexico originated in Taos?” boasted the Padre. “Popé was born a San Juan Indian, but so was Napoleon a Corsican. He operated from Taos.”

Padre Martínez knew his country, a country which had no written histories. He gave the Bishop much the best account he had heard of the great Indian revolt of 1680, which added such a long chapter to the Martyrology of the New World, when all the Spaniards were killed or driven out, and there was not one European left alive north of El Paso del Norte.

That night after supper, as his host sat taking snuff, Father Latour questioned him closely and learned something about the story of his life.

Martínez was born directly under that solitary blue mountain on the sky-line west of Taos, shaped like a pyramid with the apex sliced off, in Abiquiu. It was one of the oldest Mexican settlements in the territory, surrounded by canyons so deep and ranges so rugged that it was practically cut off from intercourse with the outside world. Being so solitary, its people were sombre in temperament, fierce and fanatical in religion, celebrated the Passion Week by cross-bearings and bloody scourgings.

Antonio José Martínez grew up there, without learning to read or write, married at twenty, and lost his wife and child when he was twenty-three. After his marriage he had learned to read from the parish priest, and when he became a widower he decided to study for the priesthood. Taking his clothes and the little money he got from the sale of his household goods, he started on horseback for Durango, in Old Mexico. There he entered the Seminary and began a life of laborious study.

The Bishop could imagine what it meant for a young man who had not learned to read until long after adolescence, to undergo a severe academic training. He found Martínez deeply versed, not only in the Church Fathers, but in the Latin and Spanish classics. After six years at the Seminary, Martínez had returned to his native Abiquiu as priest of the parish church there. He was passionately attached to that old village under the pyramidal mountain. All the while he had been in Taos, half a lifetime now, he made periodic pilgrimages on horseback back to Abiquiu, as if the flavour of his own yellow earth were medicine to his soul. Naturally he hated the Americans. The American occupation meant the end of men like himself. He was a man of the old order, a son of Abiquiu, and his day was over.

On his departure from Taos, the Bishop went out of his way to make a call at Kit Carson’s ranch house. Carson, he knew, was away buying sheep, but Father Latour wished to see the Señora Carson to thank her again for her kindness to poor Magdalena, and to tell her of the woman’s happy and devoted life with the Sisters in their school at Santa Fé.

The Señora received him with that quiet but unabashed hospitality which is a common grace in Mexican households. She was a tall woman, slender, with drooping shoulders and lustrous black eyes and hair. Though she could not read, both her face and conversation were intelligent. To the Bishop’s thinking, she was handsome; her countenance showed that discipline of life which he admired. She had a cheerful disposition, too, and a pleasant sense of humour. It was possible to talk confidentially to her. She said she hoped he had been comfortable in Padre Martínez’s house, with an inflection which told that she much doubted it, and she laughed a little when he confessed that he had been annoyed by the presence of Trinidad Lucero.

“Some people say he is Father Lucero’s son,” she said with a shrug. “But I do not think so. More likely one of Padre Martínez’s. Did you hear what happened to him at Abiquiu last year, in Passion Week? He tried to be like the Saviour, and had himself crucified. Oh, not with nails! He was tied upon a cross with ropes, to hang there all night; they do that sometimes at Abiquiu, it is a very old-fashioned place. But he is so heavy that after he had hung there a few hours, the cross fell over with him, and he was very much humiliated. Then he had himself tied to a post and said he would bear as many stripes as our Saviour — six thousand, as was revealed to St. Bridget. But before they had given him a hundred, he fainted. They scourged him with cactus whips, and his back was so poisoned that he was sick up there for a long while. This year they sent word that they did not want him at Abiquiu, so he had to keep Holy Week here, and everybody laughed at him.”

Father Latour asked the Señora to tell him frankly whether she thought he could put a stop to the extravagances of the Penitential Brotherhood. She smiled and shook her head. “I often say to my husband, I hope you will not try to do that. It would only set the people against you. The old people have need of their old customs; and the young ones will go with the times.”

As the Bishop was taking his leave, she put into his saddle-bags a beautiful piece of lace-work for Magdalena. “She will not be likely to use it for herself, but she will be glad to have it to give to the Sisters. That brutal man left her nothing. After he was hung, there was nothing to sell but his gun and one burro. That was why he was going to take the risk of killing two Padres for their mules — and for spite against religion, maybe! Magdalena said he had often threatened to kill the priest at Mora.”

At Santa Fé the Bishop found Father Vaillant awaiting him. They had not seen each other since Easter, and there were many things to be discussed. The vigour and zeal of Bishop Latour’s administration had already been recognized at Rome, and he had lately received a letter from Cardinal Fransoni, Prefect of the Propaganda, announcing that the vicarate of Santa Fé had been formally raised to a diocese. By the same long-delayed post came an invitation from the Cardinal, urgently requesting Father Latour’s presence at important conferences at the Vatican during the following year. Though all these matters must be taken up in their turn between the Bishop and his Vicar–General, Father Joseph had undoubtedly come up from Albuquerque at this particular time because of a lively curiosity to hear how the Bishop had been received in Taos.

Seated in the study in their old cassocks, with the candles lighted on the table between them, they spent a long evening.

“For the present,” Father Latour remarked, “I shall do nothing to change the curious situation at Taos. It is not expedient to interfere. The church is strong, the people are devout. No matter what the conduct of the priest has been, he has built up a strong organization, and his people are devotedly loyal to him.”

“But can he be disciplined, do you think?”

“Oh, there is no question of discipline! He has been a little potentate too long. His people would assuredly support him against a French Bishop. For the present I shall be blind to what I do not like there.”

“But Jean,” Father Joseph broke out in agitation, “the man’s life is an open scandal, one hears of it everywhere. Only a few weeks ago I was told a pitiful story of a Mexican girl carried off in one of the Indian raids on the Costella valley. She was a child of eight when she was carried away, and was fifteen when she was found and ransomed. During all that time the pious girl had preserved her virginity by a succession of miracles. She had a medal from the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe tied round her neck, and she said such prayers as she had been taught. Her chastity was threatened many times, but always some unexpected event averted the catastrophe. After she was found and sent back to some relatives living in Arroyo Hondo, she was so devout that she wished to become a religious. She was debauched by this Martínez, and he married her to one of his peons. She is now living on one of his farms.”

“Yes, Christóbal told me that story,” said the Bishop with a shrug. “But Padre Martínez is getting too old to play the part of Don Juan much longer. I do not wish to lose the parish of Taos in order to punish its priest, my friend. I have no priest strong enough to put in his place. You are the only man who could meet the situation there, and you are at Albuquerque. A year from now I shall be in Rome, and there I hope to get a Spanish missionary who will take over the parish of Taos. Only a Spaniard would be welcomed there, I think.”

“You are doubtless right,” said Father Joseph. “I am often too hasty in my judgments. I may do very badly for you while you are in Europe. For I suppose I am to leave my dear Albuquerque, and come to Santa Fé while you are gone?”

“Assuredly. They will love you all the more for lacking you awhile. I hope to bring some more hardy Auvergnats back with me, young men from our own Seminary, and I am afraid I must put one of them in Albuquerque. You have been there long enough. You have done all that is necessary. I need you here, Father Joseph. As it is now, one of us must ride seventy miles whenever we wish to converse about anything.”

Father Vaillant sighed. “Ah, I supposed it would come! You will snatch me from Albuquerque as you did from Sandusky. When I went there everybody was my enemy, now everybody is my friend; therefore it is time to go.” Father Vaillant took off his glasses, folded them, and put them in their case, which act always announced his determination to retire. “So a year from now you will be in Rome. Well, I had rather be among my people in Albuquerque, that I can say honestly. But Clermont — there I envy you. I should like to see my own mountains again. At least you will see all my family and bring me word of them, and you can bring me the vestments that my dear sister Philomène and her nuns have been making for me these three years. I shall be very glad to have them.” He rose, and took up one of the candles. “And when you leave Clermont, Jean, put a few chestnuts in your pocket for me!”


The Miser

In February Bishop Latour once more set out on horseback over the Santa Fé trail, this time with Rome as his objective. He was absent for nearly a year, and when he returned he brought with him four young priests from his own Seminary of Montferrand, and a Spanish priest, Father Taladrid, whom he had found in Rome, and who was at once sent to Taos. At the Bishop’s suggestion, Padre Martínez formally resigned his parish, with the understanding that he was still to celebrate Mass upon solemn occasions. Not only did he avail himself of this privilege, but he continued to perform all marriages and burial services and to dictate the lives of the parishioners. Very soon he and Father Taladrid were at open war.

When the Bishop, unable to compose their differences, supported the new priest, Father Martínez and his friend Father Lucero, of Arroyo Hondo, mutinied; flatly refused to submit, and organized a church of their own. This, they declared, was the old Holy Catholic Church of Mexico, while the Bishop’s church was an American institution. In both towns the greater part of the population went over to the schismatic church, though some pious Mexicans, in great perplexity, attended Mass at both. Father Martínez printed a long and eloquent Proclamation (which very few of his parishioners could read) giving an historical justification for his schism, and denying the obligation of celibacy for the priesthood. As both he and Father Lucero were well on in years, this particular clause could be of little benefit to anyone in their new organization except Trinidad. After the two old priests went off into schism, one of their first solemn acts was to elevate Father Lucero’s nephew to the priesthood, and he acted as curate to them both, swinging back and forth between Taos and Arroyo Hondo.

The schismatic church at least accomplished the rejuvenation of the two rebellious priests at its head, and far and wide revived men’s interest in them, — though they had always furnished their people with plenty to talk about. Ever since they were young men with adjoining parishes, they had been friends, cronies, rivals, sometimes bitter enemies. But their quarrels could never keep them apart for long.

Old Marino Lucero had not one trait in common with Martínez, except the love of authority. He had been a miser from his youth, and lived down in the sunken world of Arroyo Hondo in the barest poverty, though he was supposed to be very rich. He used to boast that his house was as poor as a burro’s stable. His bed, his crucifix, and his bean-pot were his furniture. He kept no live-stock but one poor mule, on which he rode over to Taos to quarrel with his friend Martínez, or to get a solid dinner when he was hungry. In his casa every day was Friday — unless one of his neighbour women cooked a chicken and brought it in to him out of pure compassion. For his people liked him. He was grasping, but not oppressive, and he wrung more pesos out of Arroyo Seco and Questa than out of his own arroyo. Thrift is such a rare quality among Mexicans that they find it very amusing; his people loved to tell how he never bought anything, but picked up old brooms after housewives had thrown them away, and that he wore Padre Martínez’s garments after the Padre would have them no longer, though they were so much too big for him. One of the priests’ fiercest quarrels had come about because Martínez gave some of his old clothes to a monk from Mexico who was studying at his house, and who had not wherewithal to cover himself as winter came on.

The two priests had always talked shamelessly about each other. All Martínez’s best stories were about Lucero, and all Lucero’s were about Martínez.

“You see how it is,” Padre Lucero would say to the young men at a wedding party, “my way is better than old José Martínez’s. His nose and chin are getting to be close neighbours now, and a petticoat is not much good to him any more. But I can still rise upright at the sight of a dollar. With a new piece of money in my hand I am happier than ever; and what can he do with a pretty girl but regret?”

Avarice, he assured them, was the one passion that grew stronger and sweeter in old age. He had the lust for money as Martínez had for women, and they had never been rivals in the pursuit of their pleasures. After Trinidad was ordained and went to stay with his uncle, Father Lucero complained that he had formed gross habits living with Martínez, and was eating him out of house and home. Father Martínez told with delight how Trinidad sponged upon the parish at Arroyo Hondo, and went about poking his nose into one bean-pot after another.

When the Bishop could no longer remain deaf to the rebellion, he sent Father Vaillant over to Taos to publish the warning for three weeks and exhort the two priests to renounce their heresy. On the fourth Sunday Father Joseph, who complained that he was always sent “à fouetter les chats,” solemnly read the letter in which the Bishop stripped Father Martínez of the rights and privileges of the priesthood. On the afternoon of the same day, he rode over to Arroyo Hondo, eighteen miles away, and read a similar letter of excommunication against Father Lucero.

Father Martínez continued at the head of his schismatic church until, after a short illness, he died and was buried in schism, by Father Lucero. Soon after this, Father Lucero himself fell into a decline. But even after he was ailing he performed a feat which became one of the legends of the countryside, — killed a robber in a midnight scuffle.

A wandering teamster who had been discharged from a wagon train for theft, was picking up a living over in Taos and there heard the stories about Father Lucero’s hidden riches. He came to Arroyo Hondo to rob the old man. Father Lucero was a light sleeper, and hearing stealthy sounds in the middle of the night, he reached for the carving-knife he kept hidden under his mattress and sprang upon the intruder. They began fighting in the dark, and though the thief was a young man and armed, the old priest stabbed him to death and then, covered with blood, ran out to arouse the town. The neighbours found the Padre’s chamber like a slaughter-house, his victim lying dead beside the hole he had dug. They were amazed at what the old man had been able to do.

But from the shock of that night Father Lucero never recovered. He wasted away so rapidly that his people had the horse doctor come from Taos to look at him. This veterinary was a Yankee who had been successful in treating men as well as horses, but he said he could do nothing for Father Lucero; he believed he had an internal tumour or a cancer.

Padre Lucero died repentant, and Father Vaillant, who had pronounced his excommunication, was the one to reconcile him to the Church. The Vicar was in Taos on business for the Bishop, staying with Kit Carson and the Señora. They were all sitting at supper one evening during a heavy rain-storm, when a horseman rode up to the portale. Carson went out to receive him. The visitor he brought in with him was Trinidad Lucero, who took off his rubber coat and stood in a full-skirted cassock of Arroyo Hondo make, a crucifix about his neck, seeming to fill the room with his size and importance. After bowing ceremoniously to the Señora, he addressed himself to Father Vaillant in his best English, speaking slowly in his thick felty voice.

“I am the only nephew of Padre Lucero. My uncle is verra seek and soon to die. She has vomit the blood.” He dropped his eyes.

“Speak to me in your own language, man!” cried Father Joseph. “I can at least do more with Spanish than you can with English. Now tell me what you have to say of your uncle’s condition.”

Trinidad gave some account of his uncle’s illness, repeating solemnly the phrase, “She has vomit the blood,” which he seemed to find impressive. The sick man wished to see Father Vaillant, and begged that he would come to him and give him the Sacrament.

Carson urged the Vicar to wait until morning, as the road down into “the Hondo” would be badly washed by rain and dangerous to go over in the dark. But Father Vaillant said if the road were bad he could go down on foot. Excusing himself to the Señora Carson, he went to his room to put on his riding-clothes and get his saddlebags. Trinidad, upon invitation, sat down at the empty place and made the most of his opportunity. The host saddled Father Vaillant’s mule, and the Vicar rode away, with Trinidad for guide.

Not that he needed a guide to Arroyo Hondo, it was a place especially dear to him, and he was always glad to find a pretext for going there. How often he had ridden over there on fine days in summer, or in early spring, before the green was out, when the whole country was pink and blue and yellow, like a coloured map.

One approached over a sage-brush plain that appeared to run level and unbroken to the base of the distant mountains; then without warning, one suddenly found oneself upon the brink of a precipice, of a chasm in the earth over two hundred feet deep, the sides sheer cliffs, but cliffs of earth, not rock. Drawing rein at the edge, one looked down into a sunken world of green fields and gardens, with a pink adobe town, at the bottom of this great ditch. The men and mules walking about down there, or plowing the fields, looked like the figures of a child’s Noah’s ark. Down the middle of the arroyo, through the sunken fields and pastures, flowed a rushing stream which came from the high mountains. Its original source was so high, indeed, that by merely laying a closed wooden trough up the face of the cliff, the Mexicans conveyed the water some hundreds of feet to an open ditch at the top of the precipice. Father Vaillant had often stopped to watch the imprisoned water leaping out into the light like a thing alive, just where the steep trail down into the Hondo began. The water thus diverted was but a tiny thread of the full creek; the main stream ran down the arroyo over a white rock bottom, with green willows and deep hay grass and brilliant wild flowers on its banks. Evening primroses, the fireweed, and butterfly weed grew to a tropical size and brilliance there among the sedges.

But this was the first time Father Vaillant had ever gone down into the Hondo after dark, and at the edge of the cliff he decided not to put Contento to so cruel a test. “He can do it,” he said to Trinidad, “but I will not make him.” He dismounted and went on foot down the steep winding trail.

They reached Father Lucero’s house before midnight. Half the population of the town seemed to be in attendance, and the place was lit up as if for a festival. The sick man’s chamber was full of Mexican women, sitting about on the floor, wrapped in their black shawls, saying their prayers with lighted candles before them. One could scarcely step for the candles.

Father Vaillant beckoned to a woman he knew well, Conçeptión Gonzales, and asked her what was the meaning of this. She whispered that the dying Padre would have it so. His sight was growing dim, and he kept calling for more lights. All his life, Conçeptión sighed, he had been so saving of candles, and had mostly done with a pine splinter in the evenings.

In the corner, on the bed, Father Lucero was groaning and tossing, one man rubbing his feet, and another wringing cloths out of hot water and putting them on his stomach to dull the pain. Señora Gonzales whispered that the sick man had been gnawing the sheets for pain; she had brought over her best ones, and they were chewed to lacework across the top.

Father Vaillant approached the bed-side, “Get away from the bed a little, my good women. Arrange yourselves along the wall, your candles blind me.”

But as they began rising and lifting their candlesticks from the floor, the sick man called, “No, no, do not take away the lights! Some thief will come, and I will have nothing left.”

The women shrugged, looked reproachfully at Father Vaillant, and sat down again.

Padre Lucero was wasted to the bones. His cheeks were sunken, his hooked nose was clay-coloured and waxy, his eyes were wild with fever. They burned up at Father Joseph, — great, black, glittering, distrustful eyes. On this night of his departure the old man looked more Spaniard than Mexican. He clutched Father Joseph’s hand with a grip surprisingly strong, and gave the man who was rubbing his feet a vigorous kick in the chest.

“Have done with my feet there, and take away these wet rags. Now that the Vicar has come, I have something to say, and I want you all to hear.” Father Lucero’s voice had always been thin and high in pitch, his parishioners used to say it was like a horse talking. “Señor Vicario, you remember Padre Martínez? You ought to, for you served him as badly as you did me. Now listen:”

Father Lucero related that Martínez, before his death, had entrusted to him a certain sum of money to be spent in masses for the repose of his soul, these to be offered at his native church in Abiquiu. Lucero had not used the money as he promised, but had buried it under the dirt floor of this room, just below the large crucifix that hung on the wall yonder.

At this point Father Vaillant again signalled to the women to withdraw, but as they took up their candles, Father Lucero sat up in his night-shirt and cried, “Stay as you are! Are you going to run away and leave me with a stranger? I trust him no more than I do you! Oh, why did God not make some way for a man to protect his own after death? Alive, I can do it with my knife, old as I am. But after —?”

The Señora Gonzales soothed Father Lucero, persuaded him to lie back upon his pillows and tell them what he wanted them to do. He explained that this money which he had taken in trust from Martínez was to be sent to Abiquiu and used as the Padre had wished. Under the crucifix, and under the floor beneath the bed on which he was lying, they would find his own savings. One third of his hoard was for Trinidad. The rest was to be spent in masses for his soul, and they were to be celebrated in the old church of San Miguel in Santa Fé.

Father Vaillant assured him that all his wishes should be scrupulously carried out, and now it was time for him to dismiss the cares of this world and prepare his mind to receive the Sacrament.

“All in good time. But a man does not let go of this world so easily. Where is Conçeptión Gonzales? Come here, my daughter. See to it that the money is taken up from under the floor while I am still in this chamber, before my body is cold, that it is counted in the presence of all these women, and the sum set down in writing.” At this point, the old man started, as with a new hope. “And Christóbal, he is the man! Christóbal Carson must be here to count it and set it down. He is a just man. Trinidad, you fool, why did you not bring Christóbal?”

Father Vaillant was scandalized. “Unless you compose yourself, Father Lucero, and fix your thoughts upon Heaven, I shall refuse to administer the Sacrament. In your present state of mind, it would be a sacrilege.”

The old man folded his hands and closed his eyes in assent. Father Vaillant went into the adjoining room to put on his cassock and stole, and in his absence Conçeptión Gonzales covered a small table by the bed with one of her own white napkins and placed upon it two wax candles, and a cup of water for the ministrant’s hands. Father Vaillant came back in his vestments, with his pyx and basin of holy water, and began sprinkling the bed and the watchers, repeating the antiphon, Asperges me, Domine, hyssopo, et mundabor. The women stole away, leaving their lights upon the floor. Father Lucero made his confession, renouncing his heresy and expressing contrition, after which he received the Sacrament.

The ceremony calmed the tormented man, and he lay quiet with his hands folded on his breast. The women returned and sat murmuring prayers as before. The rain drove against the window panes, the wind made a hollow sound as it sucked down through the deep arroyo. Some of the watchers were drooping from weariness, but not one showed any wish to go home. Watching beside a death-bed was not a hardship for them, but a privilege, — in the case of a dying priest it was a distinction.

In those days, even in European countries, death had a solemn social importance. It was not regarded as a moment when certain bodily organs ceased to function, but as a dramatic climax, a moment when the soul made its entrance into the next world, passing in full consciousness through a lowly door to an unimaginable scene. Among the watchers there was always the hope that the dying man might reveal something of what he alone could see; that his countenance, if not his lips, would speak, and on his features would fall some light or shadow from beyond. The “Last Words” of great men, Napoleon, Lord Byron, were still printed in gift-books, and the dying murmurs of every common man and woman were listened for and treasured by their neighbours and kinsfolk. These sayings, no matter how unimportant, were given oracular significance and pondered by those who must one day go the same road.

The stillness of the death chamber was suddenly broken when Trinidad Lucero knelt down before the crucifix on the wall to pray. His uncle, though all thought him asleep, began to struggle and cry out, “A thief! Help, help!” Trinidad retired quickly, but after that the old man lay with one eye open, and no one dared go near the crucifix.

About an hour before day-break the Padre’s breathing became so painful that two of the men got behind him and lifted his pillows. The women whispered that his face was changing, and they brought their candles nearer, kneeling close beside his bed. His eyes were alive and had perception in them. He rolled his head to one side and lay looking intently down into the candlelight, without blinking, while his features sharpened. Several times his lips twitched back over his teeth. The watchers held their breath, feeling sure that he would speak before he passed, — and he did. After a facial spasm that was like a sardonic smile, and a clicking of breath in his mouth, their Padre spoke like a horse for the last time:

“Comete tu cola, Martínez, comete tu cola!” (Eat your tail, Martínez, eat your tail!) Almost at once he died in a convulsion.

After day-break Trinidad went forth declaring (and the Mexican women confirmed him) that at the moment of death Father Lucero had looked into the other world and beheld Padre Martínez in torment. As long as the Christians who were about that death-bed lived, the story was whispered in Arroyo Hondo.

When the floor of the priest’s house was taken up, according to his last instructions, people came from as far as Taos and Santa Cruz and Mora to see the buckskin bags of gold and silver coin that were buried beneath it. Spanish coins, French, American, English, some of them very old. When it was at length conveyed to a Government mint and examined, it was valued at nearly twenty thousand dollars in American money. A great sum for one old priest to have scraped together in a country parish down at the bottom of a ditch.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52