Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather

Book Seven

The Great Diocese


The Month of Mary

The Bishop’s work was sometimes assisted, often impeded, by external events.

By the Gadsden Purchase, executed three years after Father Latour came to Santa Fé, the United States took over from Mexico a great territory which now forms southern New Mexico and Arizona. The authorities at Rome notified Father Latour that this new territory was to be annexed to his diocese, but that as the national boundary lines often cut parishes in two, the boundaries of Church jurisdiction must be settled by conference with the Mexican Bishops of Chihuahua and Sonora. Such conferences would necessitate a journey of nearly four thousand miles. As Father Vaillant remarked, at Rome they did not seem to realize that it was no easy matter for two missionaries on horseback to keep up with the march of history.

The question hung fire for some years, the subject of voluminous correspondence. At last, in 1858, Father Vaillant was sent to arrange the debated boundaries with the Mexican Bishops. He started in the autumn and spent the whole winter on the road, going from El Paso del Norte west to Tucson, on to Santa Magdalena and Guaymas, a seaport town on the Gulf of California, and did some seafaring on the Pacific before he turned homeward.

On his return trip he was stricken with malarial fever, resulting from exposure and bad water, and lay seriously ill in a cactus desert in Arizona. Word of his illness came to Santa Fé by an Indian runner, and Father Latour and Jacinto rode across New Mexico and half of Arizona, found Father Vaillant, and brought him back by easy stages.

He was ill in the Bishop’s house for two months. This was the first spring that he and Father Latour had both been there at the same time, to enjoy the garden they had laid out soon after they first came to Santa Fé.

It was the month of Mary and the month of May. Father Vaillant was lying on an army cot, covered with blankets, under the grape arbour in the garden, watching the Bishop and his gardener at work in the vegetable plots. The apple trees were in blossom, the cherry blooms had gone by. The air and the earth interpenetrated in the warm gusts of spring; the soil was full of sunlight, and the sunlight full of red dust. The air one breathed was saturated with earthy smells, and the grass under foot had a reflection of blue sky in it.

This garden had been laid out six years ago, when the Bishop brought his fruit trees (then dry switches) up from St. Louis in wagons, along with the blessed Sisters of Loretto, who came to found the Academy of Our Lady of Light. The school was now well established, reckoned a benefit to the community by Protestants as well as Catholics, and the trees were bearing. Cuttings from them were already yielding fruit in many Mexican gardens. While the Bishop was away on that first trip to Baltimore, Father Joseph had, in addition to his many official duties, found time to instruct their Mexican housekeeper, Fructosa, in cookery. Later Bishop Latour took in hand Fructosa’s husband, Tranquilino, and trained him as a gardener. They had boldly planned for the future; the ground behind the church, between the Bishop’s house and the Academy, they laid out as a spacious orchard and kitchen-garden. Ever since then the Bishop had worked on it, planting and pruning. It was his only recreation.

A line of young poplars linked the Episcopal courtyard with the school. On the south, against the earth wall, was the one row of trees they had found growing there when they first came, — old, old tamarisks, with twisted trunks. They had been so neglected, left to fight for life in such hard, sun-baked, burro-trodden ground, that their trunks had the hardness of cypress. They looked, indeed, like very old posts, well seasoned and polished by time, miraculously endowed with the power to burst into delicate foliage and flowers, to cover themselves with long brooms of lavender-pink blossom.

Father Joseph had come to love the tamarisk above all trees. It had been the companion of his wanderings. All along his way through the deserts of New Mexico and Arizona, wherever he had come upon a Mexican homestead, out of the sun-baked earth, against the sun-baked adobe walls, the tamarisk waved its feathery plumes of bluish green. The family burro was tied to its trunk, the chickens scratched under it, the dogs slept in its shade, the washing was hung on its branches. Father Latour had often remarked that this tree seemed especially designed in shape and colour for the adobe village. The sprays of bloom which adorn it are merely another shade of the red earth walls, and its fibrous trunk is full of gold and lavender tints. Father Joseph respected the Bishop’s eye for such things, but himself he loved it merely because it was the tree of the people, and was like one of the family in every Mexican household.

This was a very happy season for Father Vaillant. For years he had not been able properly to observe this month which in his boyhood he had selected to be the holy month of the year for him, dedicated to the contemplation of his Gracious Patroness. In his former missionary life, on the Great Lakes, he used always to go into retreat at this season. But here there was no time for such things. Last year, in May, he had been on his way to the Hopi Indians, riding thirty miles a day; marrying, baptizing, confessing as he went, making camp in the sand-hills at night. His devotions had been constantly interrupted by practical considerations.

But this year, because of his illness, the month of Mary he had been able to give to Mary; to Her he had consecrated his waking hours. At night he sank to sleep with the sense of Her protection. In the morning when he awoke, before he had opened his eyes, he was conscious of a special sweetness in the air, — Mary, and the month of May. Alma Mater redemptoris! Once more he had been able to worship with the ardour of a young religious, for whom religion is pure personal devotion, unalloyed by expediency and the benumbing cares of a missionary’s work. Once again this had been his month; his Patroness had given it to him, the season that had always meant so much in his religious life.

He smiled to remember a time long ago, when he was a young curate in Cendre, in the Puy-deDôme; how he had planned a season of special devotion to the Blessed Virgin for May, and how the old priest to whom he was assistant had blasted his hopes by cold disapproval. The old man had come through the Terror, had been trained in the austerity of those days of the persecution of the clergy, and he was not untouched by Jansenism. Young Father Joseph bore his rebuke with meekness, and went sadly to his own chamber. There he took his rosary and spent the entire day in prayer. “Not according to my desires, but if it is for thy glory, grant me this boon, O Mary, my hope” In the evening of that same day the old pastor sent for him, and unsolicited granted him the request he had so sternly denied in the morning. How joyfully Father Joseph had written all this to his sister Philomène, then a pupil with the nuns of the Visitation in their native Riom, begging her to make him a quantity of artificial flowers for his May altar. How richly she had responded! — and she rejoiced no less than he that his May devotions were so largely attended, especially by the young people of the parish, in whom a notable increase of piety was manifest. Father Vaillant’s had been a close-knit family — losing their mother while they were yet children had brought the brothers and sisters the closer together — and with this sister, Philomène, he had shared all his hopes and desires and his deepest religious life.

Ever since then, all the most important events in his own history had occurred in the blessed month when this sinful and sullied world puts on white as if to commemorate the Annunciation, and becomes, for a little, lovely enough to be in truth the Bride of Christ. It was in May that he had been given grace to perform the hardest act of his life; to leave his country, to part from his dear sister and his father (under what sad circumstances!), and to start for the New World to take up a missionary’s labours. That parting was not a parting, but an escape — a running away, a betrayal of family trust for the sake of a higher trust. He could smile at it now, but at the time it had been terrible enough. The Bishop, thinning carrots yonder, would remember. It was because of what Father Latour had been to him in that hour, indeed, that Father Joseph was here in a garden in Santa Fé. He would never have left his dear Sandusky when the newly appointed Bishop asked him to share his hardships, had he not said to himself: “Ah, now it is he who is torn by perplexity! I will be to him now what he was to me that day when we stood by the road-side, waiting for the diligence to Paris, and my purpose broke, and, — he saved me.”

That time came back upon Father Vaillant now so keenly that he wiped a little moisture from his eyes, — (he was quickly moved, after the way of sick people) and he cleared his glasses and called:

“Father Latour, it is time for you to rest your back. You have been stooping over a great while.”

The Bishop came and sat down in a wheelbarrow that stood at the edge of the arbour.

“I have been thinking that I shall no longer pray for your speedy recovery, Joseph. The only way I can keep my Vicar within call is to have him sick.”

Father Joseph smiled.

“You are not in Santa Fé a great deal yourself, my Bishop.”

“Well, I shall be here this summer, and I hope to keep you with me. This year I want you to see my lotus flowers. Tranquilino will let the water into my lake this afternoon.” The lake was a little pond in the middle of the garden, into which Tranquilino, clever with water, like all Mexicans, had piped a stream from the Santa Fé creek flowing near at hand. “Last summer, while you were away,” the Bishop continued, “we had more than a hundred lotus blossoms floating on that little lake. And all from five bulbs that I put into my valise in Rome.”

“When do they blossom?”

“They begin in June, but they are at their best in July.”

“Then you must hurry them up a little. For with my Bishop’s permission, I shall be gone in July.”

“So soon? And why?”

Father Vaillant moved uneasily under his blankets. “To hunt for lost Catholics, Jean! Utterly lost Catholics, down in your new territory, towards Tucson. There are hundreds of poor families down there who have never seen a priest. I want to go from house to house this time, to every little settlement. They are full of devotion and faith, and it has nothing to feed upon but the most mistaken superstitions. They remember their prayers all wrong. They cannot read, and since there is no one to instruct them, how can they get right? They are like seeds, full of germination but with no moisture. A mere contact is enough to make them a living part of the Church. The more I work with the Mexicans, the more I believe it was people like them our Saviour bore in mind when He said, Unless ye become as little children. He was thinking of people who are not clever in the things of this world, whose minds are not upon gain and worldly advancement. These poor Christians are not thrifty like our country people at home; they have no veneration for property, no sense of material values. I stop a few hours in a village, I administer the sacraments and hear confessions, I leave in every house some little token, a rosary or a religious picture, and I go away feeling that I have conferred immeasurable happiness, and have released faithful souls that were shut away from God by neglect.

“Down near Tucson a Pima Indian convert once asked me to go off into the desert with him, as he had something to show me. He took me into a place so wild that a man less accustomed to these things might have mistrusted and feared for his life. We descended into a terrifying canyon of black rock, and there in the depths of a cave, he showed me a golden chalice, vestments and cruets, all the paraphernalia for celebrating Mass. His ancestors had hidden these sacred objects there when the mission was sacked by Apaches, he did not know how many generations ago. The secret had been handed down in his family, and I was the first priest who had ever come to restore to God his own. To me, that is the situation in a parable. The Faith, in that wild frontier, is like a buried treasure; they guard it, but they do not know how to use it to their soul’s salvation. A word, a prayer, a service, is all that is needed to set free those souls in bondage. I confess I am covetous of that mission. I desire to be the man who restores these lost children to God. It will be the greatest happiness of my life.”

The Bishop did not reply at once to this appeal. At last he said gravely, “You must realize that I have need of you here, Father Joseph. My duties are too many for one man.”

“But you do not need me so much as they do!” Father Joseph threw off his coverings and sat up in his cassock, putting his feet to the ground. “Any one of our good French priests from Montferrand can serve you here. It is work that can be done by intelligence. But down there it is work for the heart, for a particular sympathy, and none of our new priests understand those poor natures as I do. I have almost become a Mexican! I have learned to like chili colorado and mutton fat. Their foolish ways no longer offend me, their very faults are dear to me. I am THEIR MAN!”

“Ah, no doubt, no doubt! But I must insist upon your lying down for the present.”

Father Vaillant, flushed and excited, dropped back upon his pillows, and the Bishop took a short turn through the garden, — to the row of tamarisk trees and back. He walked slowly, with even, unhesitating pace, with that slender, unrigid erectness, and the fine carriage of head, which always made him seem master of the situation. No one would have guessed that a sharp struggle was going on within him. Father Joseph’s impassioned request had spoiled a cherished plan, and brought Father Latour a bitter personal disappointment. There was but one thing to do, — and before he reached the tamarisks he had done it. He broke off a spray of the dry lilac-coloured flowers to punctuate and seal, as it were, his renunciation. He returned with the same easy, deliberate tread, and stood smiling beside the army cot.

“Your feeling must be your guide in this matter, Joseph. I shall put no obstacles in your way. A certain care for your health I must insist upon, but when you are quite well, you must follow the duty that calls loudest.”

They were both silent for a few moments. Father Joseph closed his eyes against the sunlight, and Father Latour stood lost in thought, drawing the plume of tamarisk blossom absently through his delicate, rather nervous fingers. His hands had a curious authority, but not the calmness so often seen in the hands of priests; they seemed always to be investigating and making firm decisions.

The two friends were roused from their reflections by a frantic beating of wings. A bright flock of pigeons swept over their heads to the far end of the garden, where a woman was just emerging from the gate that led into the school grounds; Magdalena, who came every day to feed the doves and to gather flowers. The Sisters had given her charge of the altar decoration of the school chapel for this month, and she came for the Bishop’s apple blossoms and daffodils. She advanced in a whirlwind of gleaming wings, and Tranquilino dropped his spade and stood watching her. At one moment the whole flock of doves caught the light in such a way that they all became invisible at once, dissolved in light and disappeared as salt dissolves in water. The next moment they flashed around black and silver against the sun. They settled upon Magdalena’s arms and shoulders, ate from her hand. When she put a crust of bread between her lips, two doves hung in the air before her face, stirring their wings and pecking at the morsel. A handsome woman she had grown to be, with her comely figure and the deep claret colour under the golden brown of her cheeks.

“Who would think, to look at her now, that we took her from a place where every vileness of cruelty and lust was practised!” murmured Father Vaillant. “Not since the days of early Christianity has the Church been able to do what it can here.”

“She is but twenty-seven or — eight years old. I wonder whether she ought not to marry again,” said the Bishop thoughtfully. “Though she seems so contented, I have sometimes surprised a tragic shadow in her eyes. Do you remember the terrible look in her eyes when we first saw her?”

“Can I ever forget it! But her very body has changed. She was then a shapeless, cringing creature. I thought her half-witted. No, no! She has had enough of the storms of this world. Here she is safe and happy.” Father Vaillant sat up and called to her. “Magdalena, Magdalena, my child, come here and talk to us for a little. Two men grow lonely when they see nobody but each other.”


December Night

Father Vaillant had been absent in Arizona since midsummer, and it was now December. Bishop Latour had been going through one of those periods of coldness and doubt which, from his boyhood, had occasionally settled down upon his spirit and made him feel an alien, wherever he was. He attended to his correspondence, went on his rounds among the parish priests, held services at missions that were without pastors, superintended the building of the addition to the Sisters’ school: but his heart was not in these things.

One night about three weeks before Christmas he was lying in his bed, unable to sleep, with the sense of failure clutching at his heart. His prayers were empty words and brought him no refreshment. His soul had become a barren field. He had nothing within himself to give his priests or his people. His work seemed superficial, a house built upon the sands. His great diocese was still a heathen country. The Indians travelled their old road of fear and darkness, battling with evil omens and ancient shadows. The Mexicans were children who played with their religion.

As the night wore on, the bed on which the Bishop lay became a bed of thorns; he could bear it no longer. Getting up in the dark, he looked out of the window and was surprised to find that it was snowing, that the ground was already lightly covered. The full moon, hidden by veils of cloud, threw a pale phosphorescent luminousness over the heavens, and the towers of the church stood up black against this silvery fleece. Father Latour felt a longing to go into the church to pray; but instead he lay down again under his blankets. Then, realizing that it was the cold of the church he shrank from, and despising himself, he rose again, dressed quickly, and went out into the court, throwing on over his cassock that faithful old cloak that was the twin of Father Vaillant’s.

They had bought the cloth for those coats in Paris, long ago, when they were young men staying at the Seminary for Foreign Missions in the rue du Bac, preparing for their first voyage to the New World. The cloth had been made up into caped riding-cloaks by a German tailor in Ohio, and lined with fox fur. Years afterward, when Father Latour was about to start on his long journey in search of his Bishopric, that same tailor had made the cloaks over and relined them with squirrel skins, as more appropriate for a mild climate. These memories and many others went through the Bishop’s mind as he wrapped the trusty garment about him and crossed the court to the sacristy, with the big iron key in his hand.

The court was white with snow, and the shadows of walls and buildings stood out sharply in the faint light from the moon muffled in vapour. In the deep doorway of the sacristy he saw a crouching figure — a woman, he made out, and she was weeping bitterly. He raised her up and took her inside. As soon as he had lit a candle, he recognized her, and could have guessed her errand.

It was an old Mexican woman, called Sada, who was slave in an American family. They were Protestants, very hostile to the Roman Church, and they did not allow her to go to Mass or to receive the visits of a priest. She was carefully watched at home, — but in winter, when the heated rooms of the house were desirable to the family, she was put to sleep in a woodshed. To-night, unable to sleep for the cold, she had gathered courage for this heroic action, had slipped out through the stable door and come running up an alley-way to the House of God to pray. Finding the front doors of the church fastened, she had made her way into the Bishop’s garden and come round to the sacristy, only to find that, too, shut against her.

The Bishop stood holding the candle and watching her face while she spoke her few words; a dark brown peon face, worn thin and sharp by life and sorrow. It seemed to him that he had never seen pure goodness shine out of a human countenance as it did from hers. He saw that she had no stockings under her shoes, — the cast-off rawhides of her master, — and beneath her frayed black shawl was only a thin calico dress, covered with patches. Her teeth struck together as she stood trying to control her shivering. With one movement of his free hand the Bishop took the furred cloak from his shoulders and put it about her. This frightened her. She cowered under it, murmuring, “Ah, no, no, Padre!”

“You must obey your Padre, my daughter. Draw that cloak about you, and we will go into the church to pray.”

The church was utterly black except for the red spark of the sanctuary lamp before the high altar. Taking her hand, and holding the candle before him, he led her across the choir to the Lady Chapel. There he began to light the tapers before the Virgin. Old Sada fell on her knees and kissed the floor. She kissed the feet of the Holy Mother, the pedestal on which they stood, crying all the while. But from the working of her face, from the beautiful tremors which passed over it, he knew they were tears of ecstasy.

“Nineteen years, Father; nineteen years since I have seen the holy things of the altar!”

“All that is passed, Sada. You have remembered the holy things in your heart. We will pray together.”

The Bishop knelt beside her, and they began, O Holy Mary, Queen of Virgins . . . .

More than once Father Vaillant had spoken to the Bishop of this aged captive. There had been much whispering among the devout women of the parish about her pitiful case. The Smiths, with whom she lived, were Georgia people, who had at one time lived in El Paso del Norte, and they had taken her back to their native State with them. Not long ago some disgrace had come upon this family in Georgia, they had been forced to sell all their Negro slaves and flee the State. The Mexican woman they could not sell because they had no legal title to her, her position was irregular. Now that they were back in a Mexican country, the Smiths were afraid their charwoman might escape from them and find asylum among her own people, so they kept strict watch upon her. They did not allow her to go outside their own patio, not even to accompany her mistress to market.

Two women of the Altar Guild had been so bold as to go into the patio to talk with Sada when she was washing clothes, but they had been rudely driven away by the mistress of the house. Mrs. Smith had come running out into the court, half dressed, and told them that if they had business at her casa they were to come in by the front door, and not sneak in through the stable to frighten a poor silly creature. When they said they had come to ask Sada to go to Mass with them, she told them she had got the poor creature out of the clutches of the priests once, and would see to it that she did not fall into them again.

Even after that rebuff a very pious neighbour woman had tried to say a word to Sada through the alley door of the stable, where she was unloading wood off the burro. But the old servant had put her finger to her lips and motioned the visitor away, glancing back over her shoulder the while with such an expression of terror that the intruder hastened off, surmising that Sada would be harshly used if she were caught speaking to anyone. The good woman went immediately to Father Vaillant with this story, and he had consulted the Bishop, declaring that something ought to be done to secure the consolations of religion for the bond-woman. But the Bishop replied that the time was not yet; for the present it was inexpedient to antagonize these people. The Smiths were the leaders of a small group of low-caste Protestants who took every occasion to make trouble for the Catholics. They hung about the door of the church on festival days with mockery and loud laughter, spoke insolently to the nuns in the street, stood jeering and blaspheming when the procession went by on Corpus Christi Sunday. There were five sons in the Smith family, fellows of low habits and evil tongues. Even the two younger boys, still children, showed a vicious disposition. Tranquilino had repeatedly driven these two boys out of the Bishop’s garden, where they came with their lewd companions to rob the young pear trees or to speak filth against the priests.

When they rose from their knees, Father Latour told Sada he was glad to know that she remembered her prayers so well.

“Ah, Padre, every night I say my Rosary to my Holy Mother, no matter where I sleep!” declared the old creature passionately, looking up into his face and pressing her knotted hands against her breast.

When he asked if she had her beads with her, she was confused. She kept them tied with a cord around her waist, under her clothes, as the only place she could hide them safely.

He spoke soothingly to her. “Remember this, Sada; in the year to come, and during the Novena before Christmas, I will not forget to pray for you whenever I offer the Blessed Sacrifice of the Mass. Be at rest in your heart, for I will remember you in my silent supplications before the altar as I do my own sisters and my nieces.”

Never, as he afterward told Father Vaillant, had it been permitted him to behold such deep experience of the holy joy of religion as on that pale December night. He was able to feel, kneeling beside her, the preciousness of the things of the altar to her who was without possessions; the tapers, the image of the Virgin, the figures of the saints, the Cross that took away indignity from suffering and made pain and poverty a means of fellowship with Christ. Kneeling beside the much enduring bond-woman, he experienced those holy mysteries as he had done in his young manhood. He seemed able to feel all it meant to her to know that there was a Kind Woman in Heaven, though there were such cruel ones on earth. Old people, who have felt blows and toil and known the world’s hard hand, need, even more than children do, a woman’s tenderness. Only a Woman, divine, could know all that a woman can suffer.

Not often, indeed, had Jean Marie Latour come so near to the Fountain of all Pity as in the Lady Chapel that night; the pity that no man born of woman could ever utterly cut himself off from; that was for the murderer on the scaffold, as it was for the dying soldier or the martyr on the rack. The beautiful concept of Mary pierced the priest’s heart like a sword.

“O Sacred Heart of Mary!” she murmured by his side, and he felt how that name was food and raiment, friend and mother to her. He received the miracle in her heart into his own, saw through her eyes, knew that his poverty was as bleak as hers. When the Kingdom of Heaven had first come into the world, into a cruel world of torture and slaves and masters, He who brought it had said, “And whosoever is least among you, the same shall be first in the Kingdom of Heaven.” This church was Sada’s house, and he was a servant in it.

The Bishop heard the old woman’s confession. He blessed her and put both hands upon her head. When he took her down the nave to let her out of the church, Sada made to lift his cloak from her shoulders. He restrained her, telling her she must keep it for her own, and sleep in it at night. But she slipped out of it hurriedly; such a thought seemed to terrify her. “No, no, Father. If they were to find it on me!” More than that, she did not accuse her oppressors. But as she put it off, she stroked the old garment and patted it as if it were a living thing that had been kind to her.

Happily Father Latour bethought him of a little silver medal, with a figure of the Virgin, he had in his pocket. He gave it to her, telling her that it had been blessed by the Holy Father himself. Now she would have a treasure to hide and guard, to adore while her watchers slept. Ah, he thought, for one who cannot read — or think — the Image, the physical form of Love!

He fitted the great key into its lock, the door swung slowly back on its wooden hinges. The peace without seemed all one with the peace in his own soul. The snow had stopped, the gauzy clouds that had ribbed the arch of heaven were now all sunk into one soft white fog bank over the Sangre de Cristo mountains. The full moon shone high in the blue vault, majestic, lonely, benign. The Bishop stood in the doorway of his church, lost in thought, looking at the line of black footprints his departing visitor had left in the wet scurf of snow.


Spring in the Navajo Country

Father Vaillant was away in Arizona all winter. When the first hint of spring was in the air, the Bishop and Jacinto set out on a long ride across New Mexico, to the Painted Desert and the Hopi villages. After they left Oraibi, the Bishop rode several days to the south, to visit a Navajo friend who had lately lost his only son, and who had paid the Bishop the compliment of sending word of the boy’s death to him at Santa Fé.

Father Latour had known Eusabio a long while, had met him soon after he first came to his new diocese. The Navajo was in Santa Fé at that time, assisting the military officers to quiet an outbreak of the never-ending quarrel between his people and the Hopis. Ever since then the Bishop and the Indian chief had entertained an increasing regard for each other. Eusabio brought his son all the way to Santa Fé to have the Bishop baptize him, — that one beloved son who had died during this last winter.

Though he was ten years younger than Father Latour, Eusabio was one of the most influential men among the Navajo people, and one of the richest in sheep and horses. In Santa Fé and Albuquerque he was respected for his intelligence and authority, and admired for his fine presence. He was extremely tall, even for a Navajo, with a face like a Roman general’s of Republican times. He always dressed very elegantly in velvet and buckskin rich with bead and quill embroidery, belted with silver, and wore a blanket of the finest wool and design. His arms, under the loose sleeves of his shirt, were covered with silver bracelets, and on his breast hung very old necklaces of wampum and turquoise and coral — Mediterranean coral, that had been left in the Navajo country by Coronado’s captains when they passed through it on their way to discover the Hopi villages and the Grand Canyon.

Eusabio lived, with his relatives and dependents, in a group of hogans on the Colorado Chiquito; to the west and south and north his kinsmen herded his great flocks.

Father Latour and Jacinto arrived at the cluster of booth-like cabins during a high sandstorm, which circled about them and their mules like snow in a blizzard and all but obliterated the landscape. The Navajo came out of his house and took possession of Angelica by her bridle-bit. At first he did not open his lips, merely stood holding Father Latour’s very fine white hand in his very fine dark one, and looked into his face with a message of sorrow and resignation in his deep-set, eagle eyes. A wave of feeling passed over his bronze features as he said slowly:

“My friend has come.”

That was all, but it was everything; welcome, confidence, appreciation.

For his lodging the Bishop was given a solitary hogan, a little apart from the settlement. Eusabio quickly furnished it with his best skins and blankets, and told his guest that he must tarry a few days there and recover from his fatigue. His mules were tired, the Indian said, the Padre himself looked weary, and the way to Santa Fé was long.

The Bishop thanked him and said he would stay three days; that he had need for reflection. His mind had been taken up with practical matters ever since he left home. This seemed a spot where a man might get his thoughts together. The river, a considerable stream at this time of the year, wound among mounds and dunes of loose sand which whirled through the air all day in the boisterous spring winds. The sand banked up against the hogan the Bishop occupied, and filtered through chinks in the walls, which were made of saplings plastered with clay.

Beside the river was a grove of tall, naked cottonwoods — trees of great antiquity and enormous size — so large that they seemed to belong to a bygone age. They grew far apart, and their strange twisted shapes must have come about from the ceaseless winds that bent them to the east and scoured them with sand, and from the fact that they lived with very little water, — the river was nearly dry here for most of the year. The trees rose out of the ground at a slant, and forty or fifty feet above the earth all these white, dry trunks changed their direction, grew back over their base line. Some split into great forks which arched down almost to the ground; some did not fork at all, but the main trunk dipped downward in a strong curve, as if drawn by a bow-string; and some terminated in a thick coruscation of growth, like a crooked palm tree. They were all living trees, yet they seemed to be of old, dead, dry wood, and had very scant foliage. High up in the forks, or at the end of a preposterous length of twisted bough, would burst a faint bouquet of delicate green leaves — out of all keeping with the great lengths of seasoned white trunk and branches. The grove looked like a winter wood of giant trees, with clusters of mistletoe growing among the bare boughs.

Navajo hospitality is not intrusive. Eusabio made the Bishop understand that he was glad to have him there, and let him alone. Father Latour lived for three days in an almost perpetual sand-storm — cut off from even this remote little Indian camp by moving walls and tapestries of sand. He either sat in his house and listened to the wind, or walked abroad under those aged, wind-distorted trees, muffled in an Indian blanket, which he kept drawn up over his mouth and nose. Since his arrival he had undertaken to decide whether he would be justified in recalling Father Vaillant from Tucson. The Vicar’s occasional letters, brought by travellers, showed that he was highly content where he was, restoring the old mission church of St. Xavier del Bac, which he declared to be the most beautiful church on the continent, though it had been neglected for more than two hundred years.

Since Father Vaillant went away the Bishop’s burdens had grown heavier and heavier. The new priests from Auvergne were all good men, faithful and untiring in carrying out his wishes; but they were still strangers to the country, timid about making decisions, and referred every difficulty to their Bishop. Father Latour needed his Vicar, who had so much tact with the natives, so much sympathy with all their short-comings. When they were together, he was always curbing Father Vaillant’s hopeful rashness — but left alone, he greatly missed that very quality. And he missed Father Vaillant’s companionship — why not admit it?

Although Jean Marie Latour and Joseph Vaillant were born in neighbouring parishes in the Puy-deDôme, as children they had not known each other. The Latours were an old family of scholars and professional men, while the Vaillants were people of a much humbler station in the provincial world. Besides, little Joseph had been away from home much of the time, up on the farm in the Volvic mountains with his grandfather, where the air was especially pure, and the country quiet salutary for a child of nervous temperament. The two boys had not come together until they were Seminarians at Montferrand, in Clermont.

When Jean Marie was in his second year at the Seminary, he was standing on the recreation ground one day at the opening of the term, looking with curiosity at the new students. In the group, he noticed one of peculiarly unpromising appearance; a boy of nineteen who was undersized, very pale, homely in feature, with a wart on his chin and tow-coloured hair that made him look like a German. This boy seemed to feel his glance, and came up at once, as if he had been called. He was apparently quite unconscious of his homeliness, was not at all shy, but intensely interested in his new surroundings. He asked Jean Latour his name, where he came from, and his father’s occupation. Then he said with great simplicity:

“My father is a baker, the best in Riom. In fact, he’s a remarkable baker.”

Young Latour was amused, but expressed polite appreciation of this confidence. The queer lad went on to tell him about his brother and his aunt, and his clever little sister, Philomène. He asked how long Latour had been at the Seminary.

“Have you always intended to take orders? So have I, but I very nearly went into the army instead.”

The year previous, after the surrender of Algiers, there had been a military review at Clermont, a great display of uniforms and military bands, and stirring speeches about the glory of French arms. Young Joseph Vaillant had lost his head in the excitement, and had signed up for a volunteer without consulting his father. He gave Latour a vivid account of his patriotic emotions, of his father’s displeasure, and his own subsequent remorse. His mother had wished him to become a priest. She died when he was thirteen, and ever since then he had meant to carry out her wish and to dedicate his life to the service of the Divine Mother. But that one day, among the bands and the uniforms, he had forgotten everything but his desire to serve France.

Suddenly young Vaillant broke off, saying that he must write a letter before the hour was over, and tucking up his gown he ran away at full speed. Latour stood looking after him, resolved that he would take this new boy under his protection. There was something about the baker’s son that had given their meeting the colour of an adventure; he meant to repeat it. In that first encounter, he chose the lively, ugly boy for his friend. It was instantaneous. Latour himself was much cooler and more critical in temper; hard to please, and often a little grey in mood.

During their Seminary years he had easily surpassed his friend in scholarship, but he always realized that Joseph excelled him in the fervour of his faith. After they became missionaries, Joseph had learned to speak English, and later, Spanish, more readily than he. To be sure, he spoke both languages very incorrectly at first, but he had no vanity about grammar or refinement of phrase. To communicate with peons, he was quite willing to speak like a peon.

Though the Bishop had worked with Father Joseph for twenty-five years now, he could not reconcile the contradictions of his nature. He simply accepted them, and, when Joseph had been away for a long while, realized that he loved them all. His Vicar was one of the most truly spiritual men he had ever known, though he was so passionately attached to many of the things of this world. Fond as he was of good eating and drinking, he not only rigidly observed all the fasts of the Church, but he never complained about the hardness and scantiness of the fare on his long missionary journeys. Father Joseph’s relish for good wine might have been a fault in another man. But always frail in body, he seemed to need some quick physical stimulant to support his sudden flights of purpose and imagination. Time and again the Bishop had seen a good dinner, a bottle of claret, transformed into spiritual energy under his very eyes. From a little feast that would make other men heavy and desirous of repose, Father Vaillant would rise up revived, and work for ten or twelve hours with that ardour and thoroughness which accomplished such lasting results.

The Bishop had often been embarrassed by his Vicar’s persistence in begging for the parish, for the Cathedral fund and the distant missions. Yet for himself, Father Joseph was scarcely acquisitive to the point of decency. He owned nothing in the world but his mule, Contento. Though he received rich vestments from his sister in Riom, his daily apparel was rough and shabby. The Bishop had a large and valuable library, at least, and many comforts for his house. There were his beautiful skins and blankets — presents from Eusabio and his other Indian friends. The Mexican women, skilled in needlework and lace-making and hem-stitching, presented him with fine linen for his person, his bed, and his table. He had silver plate, given him by the Olivares and others of his rich parishioners. But Father Vaillant was like the saints of the early Church, literally without personal possessions.

In his youth, Joseph had wished to lead a life of seclusion and solitary devotion; but the truth was, he could not be happy for long without human intercourse. And he liked almost everyone. In Ohio, when they used to travel together in stage-coaches, Father Latour had noticed that every time a new passenger pushed his way into the already crowded stage, Joseph would look pleased and interested, as if this were an agreeable addition — whereas he himself felt annoyed, even if he concealed it. The ugly conditions of life in Ohio had never troubled Joseph. The hideous houses and churches, the ill-kept farms and gardens, the slovenly, sordid aspect of the towns and country-side, which continually depressed Father Latour, he seemed scarcely to perceive. One would have said he had no feeling for comeliness or grace. Yet music was a passion with him. In Sandusky it had been his delight to spend evening after evening with his German choir-master, training the young people to sing Bach oratorios.

Nothing one could say of Father Vaillant explained him. The man was much greater than the sum of his qualities. He added a glow to whatever kind of human society he was dropped down into. A Navajo hogan, some abjectly poor little huddle of Mexican huts, or a company of Monsignori and Cardinals at Rome — it was all the same.

The last time the Bishop was in Rome he had heard an amusing story from Monsignor Mazzucchi, who had been secretary to Gregory XVI at the time when Father Vaillant went from his Ohio mission for his first visit to the Holy City.

Joseph had stayed in Rome for three months, living on about forty cents a day and leaving nothing unseen. He several times asked Mazzucchi to secure him a private audience with the Pope. The secretary liked the missionary from Ohio; there was something abrupt and lively and naïf about him, a kind of freshness he did not often find in the priests who flocked to Rome. So he arranged an interview at which only the Holy Father and Father Vaillant and Mazzucchi were present.

The missionary came in, attended by a chamberlain who carried two great black valises full of objects to be blessed — instead of one, as was customary. After his reception, Father Joseph began to pour out such a vivid account of his missions and brother missionaries, that both the Holy Father and the secretary forgot to take account of time, and the audience lasted three times as long as such interviews were supposed to last. Gregory XVI, that aristocratic and autocratic prelate, who stood so consistently on the wrong side in European politics, and was the enemy of Free Italy, had done more than any of his predecessors to propagate the Faith in remote parts of the world. And here was a missionary after his own heart. Father Vaillant asked for blessings for himself, his fellow priests, his missions, his Bishop. He opened his big valises like pedlars’ packs, full of crosses, rosaries, prayer-books, medals, breviaries, on which he begged more than the usual blessing. The astonished chamberlain had come and gone several times, and Mazzucchi at last reminded the Holy Father that he had other engagements. Father Vaillant caught up his two valises himself, the chamberlain not being there at the moment, and thus laden, was bowing himself backward out of the presence, when the Pope rose from his chair and lifted his hand, not in benediction but in salutation, and called out to the departing missionary, as one man to another, “Coraggio, Americano!”

Bishop Latour found his Navajo house favourable for reflection, for recalling the past and planning the future. He wrote long letters to his brother and to old friends in France. The hogan was isolated like a ship’s cabin on the ocean, with the murmuring of great winds about it. There was no opening except the door, always open, and the air without had the turbid yellow light of sand-storms. All day long the sand came in through the cracks in the walls and formed little ridges on the earth floor. It rattled like sleet upon the dead leaves of the tree-branch roof. This house was so frail a shelter that one seemed to be sitting in the heart of a world made of dusty earth and moving air.



On the third day of his visit with Eusabio, the Bishop wrote a somewhat formal letter of recall to his Vicar, and then went for his daily walk in the desert. He stayed out until sunset, when the wind fell and the air cleared to a crystal sharpness. As he was returning, still a mile or more up the river, he heard the deep sound of a cottonwood drum, beaten softly. He surmised that the sound came from Eusabio’s house, and that his friend was at home.

Retracing his steps to the settlement, Father Latour found Eusabio seated beside his doorway, singing in the Navajo language and beating softly on one end of his long drum. Before him two very little Indian boys, about four and five years old, were dancing to the music, on the hard beaten ground. Two women, Eusabio’s wife and sister, looked on from the deep twilight of the hut.

The little boys did not notice the stranger’s approach. They were entirely engrossed in their occupation, their faces serious, their chocolate-coloured eyes half closed. The Bishop stood watching the flowing, supple movements of their arms and shoulders, the sure rhythm of their tiny moccasined feet, no larger than cottonwood leaves, as without a word of instruction they followed the irregular and strangely-accented music. Eusabio himself wore an expression of religious gravity. He sat with the drum between his knees, his broad shoulders bent forward; a crimson banda covered his forehead to hold his black hair. The silver on his dark wrists glittered as he stroked the drum-head with a stick or merely tapped it with his fingers. When he finished the song he was singing, he rose and introduced the little boys, his nephews, by their Indian names, Eagle Feather and Medicine Mountain, after which he nodded to them in dismissal. They vanished into the house. Eusabio handed the drum to his wife and walked away with his guest.

“Eusabio,” said the Bishop, “I want to send a letter to Father Vaillant, at Tucson. I will send Jacinto with it, provided you can spare me one of your people to accompany me back to Santa Fé.”

“I myself will ride with you to the Villa,” said Eusabio. The Navajos still called the capital by its old name.

Accordingly, on the following morning, Jacinto was dispatched southward, and Father Latour and Eusabio, with their pack-mule, rode to the east.

The ride back to Santa Fé was something under four hundred miles. The weather alternated between blinding sand-storms and brilliant sunlight. The sky was as full of motion and change as the desert beneath it was monotonous and still, — and there was so much sky, more than at sea, more than anywhere else in the world. The plain was there, under one’s feet, but what one saw when one looked about was that brilliant blue world of stinging air and moving cloud. Even the mountains were mere ant-hills under it. Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky. The landscape one longed for when one was far away, the thing all about one, the world one actually lived in, was the sky, the sky!

Travelling with Eusabio was like travelling with the landscape made human. He accepted chance and weather as the country did, with a sort of grave enjoyment. He talked little, ate little, slept anywhere, preserved a countenance open and warm, and like Jacinto he had unfailing good manners. The Bishop was rather surprised that he stopped so often by the way to gather flowers. One morning he came back with the mules, holding a bunch of crimson flowers — long, tube-shaped bells, that hung lightly from one side of a naked stem and trembled in the wind.

“The Indians call rainbow flower,” he said, holding them up and making the red tubes quiver. “It is early for these.”

When they left the rock or tree or sand dune that had sheltered them for the night, the Navajo was careful to obliterate every trace of their temporary occupation. He buried the embers of the fire and the remnants of food, unpiled any stones he had piled together, filled up the holes he had scooped in the sand. Since this was exactly Jacinto’s procedure, Father Latour judged that, just as it was the white man’s way to assert himself in any landscape, to change it, make it over a little (at least to leave some mark of memorial of his sojourn), it was the Indian’s way to pass through a country without disturbing anything; to pass and leave no trace, like fish through the water, or birds through the air.

It was the Indian manner to vanish into the landscape, not to stand out against it. The Hopi villages that were set upon rock mesas were made to look like the rock on which they sat, were imperceptible at a distance. The Navajo hogans, among the sand and willows, were made of sand and willows. None of the pueblos would at that time admit glass windows into their dwellings. The reflection of the sun on the glazing was to them ugly and unnatural — even dangerous. Moreover, these Indians disliked novelty and change. They came and went by the old paths worn into the rock by the feet of their fathers, used the old natural stairway of stone to climb to their mesa towns, carried water from the old springs, even after white men had dug wells.

In the working of silver or drilling of turquoise the Indians had exhaustless patience; upon their blankets and belts and ceremonial robes they lavished their skill and pains. But their conception of decoration did not extend to the landscape. They seemed to have none of the European’s desire to “master” nature, to arrange and recreate. They spent their ingenuity in the other direction; in accommodating themselves to the scene in which they found themselves. This was not so much from indolence, the Bishop thought, as from an inherited caution and respect. It was as if the great country were asleep, and they wished to carry on their lives without awakening it; or as if the spirits of earth and air and water were things not to antagonize and arouse. When they hunted, it was with the same discretion; an Indian hunt was never a slaughter. They ravaged neither the rivers nor the forest, and if they irrigated, they took as little water as would serve their needs. The land and all that it bore they treated with consideration; not attempting to improve it, they never desecrated it.

As Father Latour and Eusabio approached Albuquerque, they occasionally fell in with company; Indians going to and fro on the long winding trails across the plain, or up into the Sandia mountains. They had all of them the same quiet way of moving, whether their pace was swift or slow, and the same unobtrusive demeanour: an Indian wrapped in his bright blanket, seated upon his mule or walking beside it, moving through the pale new-budding sage-brush, winding among the sand waves, as if it were his business to pass unseen and unheard through a country awakening with spring.

North of Laguna two Zuñi runners sped by them, going somewhere east on “Indian business.” They saluted Eusabio by gestures with the open palm, but did not stop. They coursed over the sand with the fleetness of young antelope, their bodies disappearing and reappearing among the sand dunes, like the shadows that eagles cast in their strong, unhurried flight.

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