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Father Zalvidea's Money by Charles Franklin Carter

An Extract From Old Mission Stories of California

Father Zalvidea was in despair! After having lived for twenty years at Mission San Gabriel, devoting himself all that time to bringing the mission to a condition of so great size and wealth that it took its place at the head of nearly all of the missions of Nueva California, toiling from morning until night with untutored neophytes and striving to hammer something of civilization into their heads—now he was to be removed. He had seen this very thing threatening for many days, but had hoped and prayed that it might not be; he had mustered up boldness enough to address President Tapis at Monterey, beseeching that he might be continued at San Gabriel, bringing to bear the weight of all he had done, and the flourishing condition the mission was in under his charge. It was of no avail. The night before, he had received a letter by the post messenger on his way to San Diego, charging the Father to prepare for removal to Mission San Juan Capistrano, his future field of work. After a sleepless night of vain repining, he had risen early and wandered out into his garden, back of the church, his favorite resort when in a meditative mood, or when he wished to escape intrusion of whatever sort.

Father Zalvidea's garden was a warm, sunny place, filled to overflowing with flowers and plants and trees. It covered nearly an acre of ground, bounded on one side by the church, on part of the adjoining side by the Father's house, close by the church; from here the ground sloped gradually to the west, leaving open to view the San Gabriel Mountains, towering high above the plain. The Father had planned this garden soon after coming to the mission, and had laid it out with all the talent of a landscape artist. In the corner bounded by the church and his house, he had planted most of the trees—olive, lemon and peach, and a few palms—disposing them skillfully for shade, while at the same time leaving vistas of the adobe church, golden yellow in the sunlight; beyond were placed the flowering plants—roses in immense numbers, a great variety of lilies of different tints, a few century plants, one of them with its huge flower stalk high in air, and a large passion vine, trained along the adobe wall enclosing the garden on the west. These were the most prominent of the plants, brought from Mexico and Spain, reminding him of his old home; and interspersed with these were a goodly number of vegetables, for this garden was not wholly for pleasure, but served as a source of supply for the Father's, table. Paths there were none. Every spot of ground, where there was nothing growing, was hard and smooth like a path, baked as it was by the sun after every rain. At first the Father had tried to grow grass in some parts of his garden, but soon gave it up on account of the constant attention it needed, and disliking the tough wiry grass, native to the region, he trained his plants to cover the ground, letting them spread and wander much at their will. Here was his rest from the many and varied labors in a Nueva California mission; and here he was to be found when at leisure, seeing if his plants were given the proper attention by his gardener, studying changes from time to time in their arrangement, or wandering about, now here, now there, with eyes bent on the ground, meditating on his duties, or gazing off to the distant horizon, and dreaming of his early life in his boyhood home.

But this morning Father Zalvidea was thinking of anything but. Spain, or even of his garden, as he passed slowly back and forth among the, plants. His thoughts were occupied with the instructions he had received the night before. One must put one's self in the Father's place, and know something of his life and surroundings, to appreciate the reason for his dislike to the proposed change. The missions in Nueva California were lonely, isolated spots of civilization in the midst of many Indian tribes. Each one, twenty to fifty miles distant from the neighboring mission on either side, lived, in a great measure, solely for itself, as it was dependent, in most things, on itself alone. There was communication, of course, between the different missions, with the president at Monterey, and with Mexico; but, occasionally, weeks would go by without a single messenger from the outside world, during which time each mission was a little world by itself. This tended to strengthen the love for locality, which was still farther increased from the fathers' having no family ties, leading them, each one, in his celibate state, to become more deeply attached to his own particular field of labor, with an intensity not often seen in other classes of men. Thus our Father Zalvidea had been so long at Mission San Gabriel, that he had come to look on it almost as his own, in more senses than the one strictly of being its religious and temporal head. He had carried on the good work, begun by his predecessor, Father Sanchez, and had brought the mission to such a state of prosperity, that it was second to none in wealth, and to but few in number of Indian neophytes. Now, as he wandered around in his garden, he gazed at the buildings of his establishment scattered, near and far, in every direction; at the church, close by, which, although not as fine as those at some of the missions—San Luis Rey and Santa B‡rbara, for instance—was a good solid structure, imposing in its appearance of strength; his own abode adjoining; the low adobe houses of the Indians everywhere; the corrals of livestock on the foothills in the distance. Finally his eye rested on the vineyards stretching away toward the north and west, so far that they seemed without end. These vineyards were the pride of the Father's heart, for the culture of the grape was one of his hobbies, and here at San Gabriel he had carried out his theories in viticulture so successfully that his vineyards, and the wine and brandy made from them, were famous throughout the length of the land, and much sought after by the other missions, as well as by Mexico. No wonder the Father was proud of his success, for this product was a mine of wealth to the mission. Now, however, there was no pride in his glance, as he looked long and sorrowfully at his vineyards; he was thinking gloomily that they were no longer his, and that he must leave this place, which he was come to love with all the repressed passion of his heart. It was not as though he were going to a poor and mean mission, as were some of those in Nueva California. Father Zalvidea had been more than once to San Juan Capistrano, fifty miles south of San Gabriel, and knew well that it was large, although not as rich as it had been at one time; but his was the nature of the cat, which always returns to its old home. Father Zalvidea knew a priest was needed at San Juan Capistrano, and none was as available as himself; but he was human, and this last sacrifice of self was more than he could make without a murmur.

At last he returned to his house, and, after breakfast, began to make his preparations. A week later saw him leaving the mission with his personal belongings, the most valuable of which appeared to be a heavy wooden box, about the size and shape of a brick, and which he would not allow out of his own hands, but carried with him, fastened to the pommel of his saddle. What was in this box no one knew but the Father himself.

Behold Father Zalvidea at Mission San Juan Capistrano! Although at first murmuring at the change of his scene of labor, yet, after finding it inevitable, he had submitted to it with all due humility, and with energy and even enthusiasm had thrown himself into the work at hand. Mission San Juan Capistrano was fallen away sadly from the high position it had held ten years before: neophytes were still many, but they had been allowed to follow their own devices; the religious life, consequently, was neglected, as well as the cultivation of the mission lands. It was a sad prospect that met the Father's eyes, the first time he took a survey of the fields and corrals and vineyards of the mission. On every side his well-trained eye saw the marks of lack of care in husbandry—the fields of wheat and corn were only half cultivated; the livestock in the corrals looked poor and thin; while as for the vineyards—! Father Zalvidea sighed deeply. as he gazed at what were the merest apology for vineyards, judging from his high standard, and compared them mentally with those cared for so lovingly at Mission San Gabriel. He saw, at a glance, just what was needed, and set about bringing them up to a point somewhat approaching his ideal.

But before giving his attention to these mundane things, Father Zalvidea had to do much for the spiritual side of the mission and its people; for it was in a more deplorable state in this respect than in that of material welfare. Fourteen years before, Mission San Juan Capistrano had had the finest church in Nueva California, the pride of the whole country. Father Zalvidea had been present at its dedication, the occasion of great ceremony amidst a vast throng of neophytes, and all the Spanish dignitaries that could be gathered together. But the mission had enjoyed its beautiful church only a few years when it suffered a most awful calamity. One Sunday morning, when the church was crowded with Indians at mass, there was heard in the hush of prayer, a distant noise, like the sound of a great rush of stormwind, which, a moment later, reached the mission, and with the rocking of the earth and the rending of walls, the tower of the new church fell on the people below, shrieking as they fled. Forty were killed on the spot, as well as many wounded. This catastrophe was by far the worst ever visited on the missions, and it was long before San Juan Capistrano recovered from the blow—never, in fact, so far as the church was concerned, for it was too badly injured to be repaired, and the fathers could not summon up energy enough to build another. Since that dire Sabbath, a room in the adjoining building had been used as a church. Father Zalvidea's greatest desire, next to seeing the vineyards brought up to their proper condition, was to build a new church, and these were the only mitigating circumstances in his regretted change of residence; but he had been only a few days at his new home, when he gave up his purpose with regard to the church; it was beyond his power, as he saw. San Juan Capistrano had been too long on the decline, and the neophytes were too indifferent, to undertake this work.

So our Father Zalvidea confined himself to the simple religious duties of his position, and left such grand projects as building a new church to the future. He had enough, and more than enough, to occupy all his time, and he soon ceased to sigh for his old home at San Gabriel, indeed, almost to think of it. It was only at rare intervals that he found time, after the day's work was done, to take a little pasear in the mission garden in front of the monastery. But this garden was a poor makeshift; the plants were of the commonest kinds, and were choked with weeds. Still, the Father found comfort in it, and with his oversight it was soon a fairly respectable garden. So the months flew by.

It was more than a year after Father Zalvidea's advent at Mission San Juan Capistrano, when he bethought himself one day of the little wooden box he had brought with him. On arriving, he had deposited it temporarily at the bottom of a large chest which stood in his room, and which was used for storing away papers and records of the mission. Hidden as the box was, under piles of papers, the Father felt tolerably safe regarding his treasure, and immured as he had been ever since, in the busy affairs needing his whole time and attention, he had almost forgotten it. But on this day he had made up his mind to hide it more effectually. Late that night, after the entire mission was still in sleep, he took out the box, placed it on the table, and by the light of a candle, opened it with a small key which he wore, hung by a slender black silk cord, round his neck underneath his Franciscan robe. Inside were five gleaming rows of gold coins-bright new Spanish onzas, every one looking as if just fresh from the mint. There were one hundred and twenty-five coins, each worth about sixteen dollars of American money, making the contents of the box amount to two thousand dollars—a goodly sum, indeed, for a poor Spanish priest in Nueva California to possess. Lying on top of the rows of coins was a slip of paper, on which was written in Spanish:

“My dearest one, pray to God and Our Lady to bless your poor Dolores.”

Father Zalvidea read the paper, then kissing it passionately, fell on his knees, and, with trembling voice, offered up his petitions to Christ for a blessing on the loved one in the far away land.

This box contained the romance of Father Zalvidea's life. Years before, when a young man, and ere he had had any thought of becoming a priest, he had been enamored of a beautiful Andalusian maiden, who returned his love. But Dolores's father was rich, and looked with disfavor upon poor JosÂŽ Zalvidea, and at length forced his daughter to marry a suitor he had chosen for her—a man three times her age, but with a fortune equal to that which was to be hers at her father's death; for she was his only child. JosÂŽ, heart-broken, entered a seminary to study for the priesthood, and gave himself up to his new work, striving to drown his sorrow. A few years later, he was selected to make one of a number of young priests to go to Mexico. The last time he had heard confessions in the parish church, a woman, heavily veiled, entered the confessional, and, in a whisper, interrupted by sobs, asked for his blessing. At her first word he recognized Dolores's voice, and with a smothered cry, fell back, almost unconscious, in his seat. This was the first time he had seen her since her unhappy marriage, five years before. Recovering himself, he asked her, coldly, why she was there. With sobs she told him she had a small box which she would leave in the confessional for him. On his asking what was in it, and what she wished him to do with it, she said it was a small sum of money which he must take with him on his journey, and always keep by him, and if, at any time, or when old age overtook him, he were in want, to use it. “You are going far away,” she said. “I shall never see you, may never hear of you, again. I know a priest's life is one of toil and hardship, especially in the new land, and his salary very small. It is my own, JosÂŽ,” she implored, “do not refuse me. Take it, and think kindly of me, if you can.” Touched by her thought, he promised, and should he never need to use it, he would leave it to the Church. Then, as she bowed her head, in broken accents, he called down Heaven's richest blessing on his loved one. Weeping bitterly, Dolores arose and left the confessional. As soon as he had recovered from his agitation, JosÂŽ left his seat, and entering the side of the confessional where Dolores had knelt, he saw an oblong parcel, wrapped in dark paper, lying on the floor far back in the corner. He took it up and carried it away with him. Not for many days after did he have the calmness to open it. Inside the wrapper was the wooden box we have already seen, on top of which lay a small, flat key. He unlocked the box, and with eyes full of tears, saw the glittering rows of gold coins, and the words traced by Dolores's pen.

But to-night Father Zalvidea decided to put the box in a safer place. Going to the window, and drawing aside the curtain, he opened it. Listening intently for a moment, and hearing nothing, he returned to the table, lighted a small dark lantern, extinguished the candle, and taking up the box after closing and locking it, he left the room, and walked softly through the passage out into the patio.

Aided by the feeble light from the moon, low down on the horizon, he hurried along the cloister to a room back of the church, which had been deserted and left to itself for many years, and was now almost in ruins. Going into one corner, Father Zalvidea, by the light of his lantern, found a small pick and shovel which, that afternoon, he had left there for this very purpose, and set to work to dig a hole in which to bury his treasure. Although the ground was hard, it required only a few minutes, after the cement floor was broken through, to accomplish this, for the box was small, and to bury it deep down was quite unnecessary. Father Zalvidea placed the box in the hole, covered it with the earth he had thrown to one side on a large sheet of paper he had brought with him, and then, carefully fitting together the pieces of cement he had broken, he sprinkled over it some of the remaining earth, to hide all traces of the disturbance—a thing very easy to do, as the cement was so nearly the color of the clay soil. Leaving the shovel and pick, he wrapped what earth was left in the paper, put it under his arm, took up the lantern, and wended his way back to his room, congratulating himself on having hidden the money safely.

Well would it have been for the Father, had he put his box of gold coins into the great, strong, securely padlocked chest standing in the vestry of the church, in which were kept the money and all the valuable articles—the gold embroidered vestments and the sacred vessels of silver belonging to the mission. Father Zalvidea had, indeed, thought of it, but he had felt a strong repugnance to placing his own private property among that of the church; so, although much the better way, he had chosen the other. And how could he know there had been a pair of eyes watching him all the time he was busy in the deserted room? Such was the case, however, for a young mestizo had been witness of the whole proceeding. Juan, the seventeen year old son of a Mexican laborer, who had married one of the mission Indian women, united in himself the bad qualities of both races, as has so often been the result of such crosses. He had grown up idle, indifferent to his parents, vicious and cruel, leading astray the other youths of the mission, among whom he was easily the master, and causing his parents and Father Zalvidea no end of anxiety. The Father, in fact, had about made up his mind that Juan must be sent away to San Diego, and put under military discipline. To have him longer at liberty was not to be considered. This night Juan had been at the home of one of his boon companions, talking over the plans for a fandango to be given within a few days. Coming along leisurely by the wall of the building forming the east side of the patio, he saw the faintest glimmer of light shining through the opening of a ruined window. Standing on a stone, which he placed beneath the window, he looked in and saw the Father busily at work in the far corner of the room. Curiosity took possession of him, and he watched every movement of the worker until he had completed his task, taken up the lantern, and left the room. After waiting a few moments, to make sure he was not coming back, Juan sprang lightly through the window, and went to the corner where the Father had been occupied. First looking out into the patio to see that no one was there, he seized the shovel, and digging energetically a minute or two, struck the hard top of the box. Lifting it out he examined it by the moonlight coming in by the door, which he had left open. The box was heavy, but there was nothing else to indicate what were its contents. Juan knew the Father valued it, from the care with which he had secreted it, and surmised, from its weight, it might contain gold. Hastily filling the hole, and making the surface smooth as possible, in the dim light, he climbed out of the window, taking the box with him. Walking swiftly on the road for a half-mile farther, he came to a little adobe house where he and his parents lived. Passing the house, he hurried on to the garden and wheat-field belonging to his father, and, reaching the far end, he sat down on the ground and took the box in his lap to examine it at his ease. For a moment he hesitated, realizing the magnitude of his crime, but only for a moment. He could not resist his curiosity to see the contents of the box; and, too, if it were gold, as he felt sure it must be, he intended to take it, for Juan had long had a great desire to run away to Mexico or Hawaii; but venturesome as he was, he could not quite bring himself to the point of carrying it out, for his indolence drew him back at the prospect of being obliged to work his way.

His hesitation quickly came to an end, and placing the box on the ground, he found a sharp stone, and began pounding it with quick, hard blows. Strong as the box was, it could not long withstand such treatment, and soon it fell apart, broken at the hinges. With a low cry of surprise, Juan gazed at the glittering coins; then, with feverish fingers, he took up a handful and examined them carefully, for he had never seen the Spanish onza, and did not know its value. That it was gold, however, satisfied him; he would find out its value later, for at the first sight of it, Juan had jumped at the fact that now he was a thief, and could not remain at the mission. With lightning speed he made up his mind to run away, and that very night. Two thousand dollars in gold is a heavy load for one's pocket, but that was the only way Juan could carry it, and he quickly transferred it to his two pockets. Not daring to go into the house, from fear of waking his parents, he set off, just as he was, for San Pedro, the nearest seaport, a walk of nearly fifty miles. But the box—he must not leave that lying on the ground in plain sight! He must take it with him until he could find some place to hide it, or throw it into the sea. He picked it up, and hurried off, not noticing the slip of paper, which had fallen out of the box when it was broken open. Walking all night, Juan found himself, at daybreak, still far from San Pedro, tired out and hungry. But he knew he must keep on, if he did not want to be overtaken and captured. We shall not follow him farther; it is more than certain he will be relieved of his gold, when he reaches San Pedro, by some friendly sailor or bad character of the settlement; and he will, after all, have to work his way to Mexico, for it would be out of the question to return to San Juan Capistrano.

Juan was frequently away for two or three days at a time, and his non-appearance the next morning caused no particular remark from his parents; and not until late in the afternoon of the second day of his absence did anything occur to lead them to think he was gone. His father had begun to cut his wheat the day before. This afternoon he was just finishing the last piece of the field, when he spied something white on the ground, almost hidden by the tall grain. Stopping his horse, he picked it up, wondering, and with some difficulty made out the writing on it. Where had it come from; to whom did it belong; who was Dolores—it was too much for his slow mind to fathom. But of one thing he was certain—it must be taken to the Father; he would know if it was of moment. And then it was he thought of his son and his absence. Hardly in his own mind did he connect it with the bit of paper; and yet the suspicion, once aroused, would not be dispelled. Finishing his work as quickly as possible, he returned to his house and told his wife what he had found, and then spoke of the absence of their son as, possibly, having some connection with it.

“I will take it to the Father to-morrow,” said his wife, calmly, as became her race, but with an undertone of anxiety and sadness.

Early the next morning Juan's mother wended her way to the mission, and asking to see the Father, was led to his reception-room. He was sitting at a table covered with books and papers, reading from a large folio filled with the early statistics of the mission, the first few pages of which were written by the sainted Serra's hand. Father Zalvidea looked up as the Indian woman entered.

“Good morning, my daughter,” he said. “What do you wish with me?”

The woman responded with a trembling voice, “Father, my husband found this in his wheatfield.”

The Father took the paper with negligent curiosity. It was rumpled and dirty, far different from its appearance when in the box, and he did not recognize it. But as soon as he had smoothed it, and saw the handwriting, he sprang to his feet, crying:

“Woman, how came you by this? Tell me. Why did you bring it to me? Where is the box?”

Terrified at the outbreak she had evoked, the Indian fell on her knees before the priest, and exclaimed:

“Father, I know nothing more about it than what I have told you. My husband found it yesterday in his field, and gave it to me to bring to you. That is all, Father.”

The Father composed himself with difficulty, and, after a moment, spoke with his accustomed calmness:

“My daughter, forgive me for speaking so harshly, and doubting your word, for I know you would not have brought me the paper if you had not come honestly by it. But I must see your husband at once.”

The priest got his hat, and, accompanied by the woman, started quickly for her home.

Now the woman had said nothing about the suspicions her husband had had, and which he had imparted to her. However unworthy of her love, she was Juan's mother, and, Indian though she was, and with the inherited instincts of the savage, hers was the natural love found in civilized and savage alike, and she could not bring herself to tell the Father what she felt must be true. So, silently, the two hastened to her home. Juan's father was in the garden back of the house, weeding his vegetable patch, As soon as he saw his wife and the priest he came toward them.

“Pablo, tell me all you know about this paper?” said the Father abruptly, without preamble of any kind.

The man related the fact of his finding it, which was, indeed, all there was to tell. And then, with hesitation, spoke of Juan's absence.

The Father started.

“When did you see him last?” he asked.

“The day before yesterday, in the afternoon,” replied the man. “He said he was going to see Fernando Diaz, who lives on the mission road, two miles north from here.”

“Did you see him when he came back?” inquired the priest.

“No, Father,” the man answered. “That is the last time we have seen him.”

Father Zalvidea asked the man to show him the place where he had found the paper, and the two walked to the wheat-field. When they came. to the spot, the Father looked carefully around on the ground, hoping to discover some trace of the box and its contents. Searching in the stubble, he did actually find one of the gold coins, but that was all. The box. was too large to remain hidden in the field, and the Father knew it must have been carried away. He showed Pablo, who had been assisting in the search, the coin he had found, and then, as there was no object in concealment, told him of his loss.

The man's astonishment at the enormity of his son's offense was profound. He was struck dumb for some moments, but realizing, at last, that his son was, in all likelihood, involved, he besought the Father to have pity on him.

“Pablo,” said the priest, “have you no idea whither Juan is gone? Have you ever heard him say anything to lead you to think he wanted to leave the mission?”

“No, Father,” he replied; for Juan always had been careful to say nothing of his longing to go to Mexico, as he knew he might be watched should he ever carry it out.

“I know not what to do,” said the priest, “but I shall, at any rate, send messengers to San Diego and San Pedro. He might leave either place in some ship for Mexico or Central America, for he would not dare to go to San Luis Rey or San Gabriel, as he would be discovered and sent back. But I fear it will do no good.”

The two returned to the house, where the woman still waited for them. She saw traces of emotion on the Father's face, and consternation written plainly on that of her husband, but, like a true Indian, asked no questions.

Father Zalvidea commanded the couple to say nothing about the matter, and returned to the mission. As soon as he reached it, he sent off two trusty neophytes, on horseback, one to San Diego, the other to San Pedro, with letters to friends in each place, relating the robbery. But no trace of Juan was found. He had had over two days' start, and by the time the messenger arrived at San Pedro, he was far out to sea in a ship which had sailed the very morning of the discovery of the theft.

After this cruel interruption, Father Zalvidea returned to his quiet life with a sorrowful heart. He did not regret the loss of the money, so far as he himself was concerned, for he had long destined it for the Church, as he knew he could retire to some monastery when too old and feeble for further usefulness; but the desecration of his secret was like a painful stab. The robbery had the effect, also, of calling forcibly to mind, once again, the life and love of other days—those halcyon days of youth, when all was sunshine and hope. During the rest of the day the Father was unable to control himself for any work whatsoever. He paced back and forth the length of his room; walked up and down the cloister surrounding the patio; wandered out around the garden, and even as far off as the bluff, a mile from the mission, from which could be seen the beach below, white with foam from the inrushing waves. It was many days before he regained his normal equanimity.

Father Zalvidea lived at Mission San Juan Capistrano nearly fifteen years after this episode in his life there. Two years after the robbery he heard that his loss was known to the mission. Pablo, while under the influence of too much aguardiente, had told of it. Father Zalvidea at once set to work to silence the gossip, and did so effectually, for he heard nothing more of it while he remained at the mission. But the rumor, lived, although repressed, and for years after his departure, searches were made for the money which many believed had never been stolen, or, if recovered, had been reburied by the Father; for Pablo, babbling in his stupor, had not been careful as to accuracy. In fact, as late as 1888, there were people at San Juan Capistrano who still believed in the buried treasure, and explored the ruins of the mission, digging in various spots for it. Why the Father should have left his money buried there (supposing it not to have been stolen), instead of taking it with him when he removed from the mission, tradition does not state.

Note.—Bancroft: History of California, Vol. IV, p. 624, note, gives about all that is known of these famous onzas of Father Zalvidea. Probably it will never be known definitely what became of them.

In alluding to the earthquake of 1812, the writer has followed the commonly received assumption, derived from Bancroft, that it occurred December 8, and that this date fell on a Sunday. From later research, it is now believed to have occurred October 8, which was a Thursday. This seems more likely than the date given by Bancroft (December 8, 1812, fell on Tuesday), for he himself says forty of the attendants at mass were killed, the officiating priest and six others being all that were saved: he does not mention the wounded, if any. This would be far too small a number for a Sunday mass attendance.