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Chapter 5: Don Mariano.

No one can say whether the Vallejo family-of which Don Mariano is the head-derive their line from Hercules or only from Caesar. Nothing in the way of long descent would be surprising in Don Mariano; even though his race ran up to Adam, like the pedigree made out by heralds for his countryman Charles the Fifth. “ You ask about the history of California,” he remarks; “my biography is the history of California.”

In one sense he is right. Don Mariano's story is that of nearly every Mexican of rank. In olden times (now thirty years ago!) he was the largest holder of land in California. Besides his place at Monterey, the family-seat, he owned a sheep-run on San Benito River, an estate sixty miles long in San Joaquin Valley, a whole county on San Pablo Bay, and many smaller tracts in other parts. High [38] mountain ranges stood within the boundaries of his estate. With an exception here and there, these tracts have passed into the stranger's hands.

Springing from an ancient root, claiming an ancestry all knights and nobles, Mariano took to arms as soon as he could ride a horse and wield a sword. Joining a troop of rangers, he was soon a man of note. Like all his neighbours who have lived near Indian wigwams, le was light of love, and hardly cared whether his divinity was dark or fair; but he was made for better things than dawdling after squaws and sefioritas. Fond of work, he spent the time in study which his brethren spent in gaming-booths and tavern dens. He grew to be a famous rider and a still more famous shot. At twenty he has won his captain's grade, from which time he has his part in every row, and got a grade by every change. One year he helped the radicals to harass Spain; next year he helped the Jesuits to upset those radicals. When the bishop of Monterey denounced the new republic, Mariano, Catholic first, Mexican afterwards, followed his pastor into civil war. Captured by the enemy, who put him into handcuffs, he was so indignant that he [39] shaved his beard, renounced his title of a Spanish don, and swore that in future he would shave his face like an English marquis.

Acting with Alvaredo in founding a new government, he found the hour of his success the most critical of his life. What should he do with California? She could not stand alone. Four countries had some claim to her-Spain, England, Russia, the United States. Spain had been her nominal owner for a hundred years. England had the right of Drake's discovery, when the coast was called New Albion, and annexed to the domain of Queen Elizabeth. Russia had long possessed some points on the coast, notably the hills commanding the Golden Gate. America had the claims of neighbourhood, and a cession from the government of Mexico. What part was he to play? His bishops were in favour of submitting to the Spanish crown, Spain being their country and the bulwark of their Church. The other powers are all heretical. A Catholic seemed to have no choice; but Don Mariano, though a Catholic before he is a Mexican, is a Vallejo even before he is a Catholic. An active man, he kept his eyes open while his pastors were [40] asleep. Learning a little English, he read the journals of London and New York with a forecasting eye. Spain had no ships at sea. An English fleet was off the coast, an American army on the land. To one or other of these powers he saw that his young republic must incline. To which? Don Mariano, shaving like an English marquis, turned his friendly face towards London, though he took good care not to offend his neighbours of New York. A secret memoir, laid before President Polk, describes him as “ a man of high family, of good education (for a Mexican), who seems to be retiring fiom his military charge, though keeping a squad of soldiers at his country-house. In cld days proud and stiff, he is now smooth and sweet, yet with the lordly air of a man stooping from a height. His gates are always open to the stranger, but he keeps an eye on every guest, and only yields his heart to men of character and rank. His power is felt in every part of California, and Solano county, where he chiefly lives, is safer both for property and life than any other part of the Pacific slope. He asks for nothing. Money will not tempt him. No one knows his mind; perhaps he would like a title [41] or an office.” Such, in substance, is the picture of Don Mariano, presented thirty years ago, to President Polk.

Unable to make him a marquis, Polk made him a general; then, in spite of his priests and bishops, Don Mariano staked his fortunes on the Stars and Stripes.

In punishment for his sin, he has been badly used by the United States. Wishing to see the capital of California built on his estate, he founded a new city on San Pablo Bay, which he called Vallejo, and offered not only to give the State his finest sites, but to defray the cost of building a court-house and laying out a public square. These offers were accepted by the State; yet after he had spent three hundred thousand dollars on public works in Vallejo, the capital was removed to Sacramento, and Don hMariano was left a ruined man.

Since then he has been swimming up a stream, in which the floods are high and swift. “ No Mexican of note,” he says to me in one of our drives, “has been able to keep his lands. My case is hard, but not so hard as that of others; twenty years hence no Spanish don will be a citizen of the United States,” [42] “You mean the Spaniards will retire?”

“They will remove to Mexico, where they may hope to keep their own.”

Don Mariano's lands have slipped from him by many avenues of escape. His daughter chose an English mate; his sister chose an English mate. Much of his land is fenced and planted for the benefit of children with such English names as Frisby and Leese, who in the coming years will smile in their solid prosperity at the empty show and pretentious poverty of their Mexican ancestors.

“You will attend our ball to-night?” asks Don Mariano.

“Ball! What ball?”

“Our cascarone ball.”

“What is a cascarone ball?”

“Ah, yes; you are non-Catholic, and have another legend in your Church. A cascarone ball is an eggshell ball — cascaron, eggshell, you see. It is a festival of our people, kept by all good Catholics and Mexicans.”

Don Mariano shows me a printed notice of this festival; a grand affair, to be given in a noble hall, with a fine orchestra, and a splendid supper. We accept his invitation to the egg-shell dance. [43]

On going to our rooms, we hear the carpenters at work, and see the florists bringing in their wares. The dancing-room being next to my apartment, I can see the finery from my door. A wooden shed, about the length of a country barn, with bare benches set against white-washed walls, is brightened here and there by a bunch of ribbon, a wreath of paper flowers, and something like a score of lights. One fiddle and one concertina make the orchestra. On the other side, there are girls in brilliant colours, in the ripple of whose laughter you catch the music which a young man prefers to any sight or sound below the spheres.

As I am passing down the room, conducting two selioras to their seats, a young girl, slipping behind me, smashes an eggshell on my pate; an eggshell from which the meat has been drawn, and the inside filled with tinsel and coloured paper, cut so fine as to fall like snow. A peal of laughter greets the girl's success. It is a challenge. When a shell is broken on your head, you have the right to claim a dance, during which you may crush your cascaron among the damsel's curls. A romp ensues. If senorita slips away, senor follows in pursuit. A [44] game of hide and seek is played, and shells get broken on balconies. As night comes on, the ladies press the fun, not only for the laughter, but because the tinsel adds a beauty to their dull black curls and lustrous eyes. By supper-time the riot runs so high that dons and caballeros can hardly keep their pride of port.

The supper is a thing to match the ball. We march in grandly, to a feast of thin soup, stale cakes, pork sandwiches, and cold tea. Yet caballeros and sefioras drink and smile, and try to make believe that all this shabby finery is a grand affair. For is it not their cascarone ball?

Let no man jest at these bare walls, these paper flowers, these guttering candles, and this banquet of cakes and nuts, washed down with tea; for after supper, the dons and caballeros steal away to whisky bars, where three or four doses of their fire-water serve to wake the demons that sleep in every Mexican eye. Each don and caballero wears a poignard in his vest.

“Good Catholics, true caballeros,” whispers Don Mariano, as he bows adieu; “you see we keep the festivals of our faith!” [45]

“Good Catholic first, true caballero second, ell Don Mariano?”

“Yes, senor;” a mixed blood may be Mexican first, Catholic afterwards; a Spanish gentleman will always put his religion first. You know our saying: “ la religion es la creencia, la creencia pertenece al espiritu, y al espiritu nadie lo manda.”

Living like a big chief, in the fashion of his country, Don Mariano has squandered not a little of his vast estate on what are called his pleasures. He has a lust for building towns. Besides his city of Vallejo, he has built the port and city of Benecia, named in honour of a lovely and neglected wife. His ranches sink in piles, his sheep-runs melt into public squares; but more than all, his property slips away from him in courts of law. A stranger challenges his title, and a judge reviews his grant. All Mexicans are fond of law, and Don Mariano never goes into some court except to lose some part of his estate. Don Mariano is a type, not only of the Lost Capital, but the Retiring Race.

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