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63890i

63890i

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Published by: aravindpunna on Jul 20, 2013
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07/20/2013

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The Isle of Skulls
I
 The good priests of Santa Barbara sat in grave conference on the long corridor of their mission. It was a winter'sday, and they basked in the sun. The hoods of their brown habits peaked above faces lean and ascetic, fat andgood-tempered, stern, intelligent, weak, commanding. One face alone was young.But for the subject under discussion they would have been at peace with themselves and with Nature. In thegreat square of the mission the Indians they had Christianized worked at many trades. The great aqueduct alongthe brow of one of the lower hills, the wheat and corn fields on the slopes, the trim orchards and vegetablegardens in the canons of the great bare mountains curving about the valley, were eloquent evidence of their cleverness and industry. From the open door of the church came the sound of lively and solemn tunes: the choir was practising for mass. The day was as peaceful as only those long drowsy shimmering days before theAmericans came could be. And yet there was dissent among the padres.Several had been speaking together, when one of the older men raised his hand with cold impatience."There is only one argument," he said. "We came here, came to the wilderness out of civilization, for one objectonly--to lead the heathen to God. We have met with a fair success. Shall we leave these miserable islanders to perish, when we have it in our power to save?""But no one knows exactly where this island is, Father Jimeno," replied the young priest. "And we know little of navigation, and may perish before we find it. Our lives are more precious than those of savages.""In the sight of God one soul is of precisely the same value as another, Father Carillo."The young priest scowled. "We can save. They cannot.""If we refuse to save when the power is ours, then the savage in his extremest beastiality has more hope of heaven than we have."Father Carillo looked up at the golden sun riding high in the dark blue sky, down over the stately oaks andmassive boulders of the valley where quail flocked like tame geese. He had no wish to leave his paradise, and asthe youngest and hardiest of the priests, he knew that he would be ordered to take charge of the expedition."It is said also," continued the older man, "that once a ship from the Continent of Europe was wrecked amongthose islands--""No? No?" interrupted several of the priests."It is more than probable that there were survivors, and that their descendants live on this very island to-day.Think of it, my brother! Men and women of our own blood, perhaps, living like beasts of the field! Worshippingidols! Destitute of morality! Can we sit here in hope of everlasting life while our brethren perish?""No!" The possibility of rescuing men of European blood had quenched dissent. Even Carillo spoke asspontaneously as the others.As he had anticipated, the expedition was put in his charge. Don Guillermo Iturbi y Moncada, the magnate of the South, owned a small schooner, and placed it at the disposal of the priests.
 
Through the wide portals of the mission church, two weeks later, rolled the solemn music of high mass. Thechurch was decorated as for a festival. The aristocrats of the town knelt near the altar, the people and Indians behind.Father Carillo knelt and took communion, the music hushing suddenly to rise in more sonorous volume. ThenFather Jimeno, bearing a cross and chanting the rosary, descended the altar steps and walked toward the doors.On either side of him a page swung a censer. Four women neophytes rose from among the worshippers, andshouldering a litter on which rested a square box containing an upright figure of the Holy Virgin followed with bent heads. The Virgin's gown was of yellow satin, covered with costly Spanish lace; strands of BajaCalifornian pearls bedecked the front of her gown. Behind this resplendent image came the other priests, twoand two, wearing their white satin embroidered robes, chanting the sacred mysteries. Father Carillo walked lastand alone. His thin clever face wore an expression of nervous exaltation.As the procession descended the steps of the church, the bells rang out a wild inspiring peal. The worshippersrose, and forming in line followed the priests down the valley.When they reached the water's edge, Father Jimeno raised the cross above his head, stepped with the other  priests into a boat, and was rowed to the schooner. He sprinkled holy water upon the little craft; then Father Carillo knelt and received the blessing of each of his brethren. When he rose all kissed him solemnly, thenreturned to the shore, where the whole town knelt. The boat brought back the six Indians who were to givegreeting and confidence to their kinsmen on the island, and the schooner was ready to sail. As she weighedanchor, the priests knelt in a row before the people, Father Jimeno alone standing and holding the cross aloftwith rigid arms.Father Carillo stood on deck and watched the white mission under the mountain narrow to a thread, the kneeling priests become dots of reflected light. His exaltation vanished. He was no longer the chief figure in a picturesque panorama. He set his lips and his teeth behind them. He was a very ambitious man. His dreamsleapt beyond California to the capital of Spain. If he returned with his savages, he might make success serve ashalf the ladder. But would he return?Wind and weather favoured him. Three days after leaving Santa Barbara he sighted a long narrow mountainousisland. He had passed another of different proportions in the morning, and before night sighted still another,small and oval. But the lofty irregular mass, some ten miles long and four miles wide, which he approached atsundown, was the one he sought. The night world was alight under the white blaze of the moon; the captainrode into a small harbour at the extreme end of the island and cast anchor, avoiding reefs and shoals as facilelyas by midday. Father Carillo gave his Indians orders to be ready to march at dawn.The next morning the priest arrayed himself in his white satin garments, embroidered about the skirt with goldand on the chest with a purple cross pointed with gold. The brown woollen habit of his voyage was left behind. None knew better than he the value of theatric effect upon the benighted mind. His Indians wore gayly striped blankets of their own manufacture, and carried baskets containing presents and civilized food.Bearing a large gilt cross, Father Carillo stepped on shore, waved farewell to the captain, and directed hisIndians to keep faithfully in the line of march: they might come upon the savages at any moment. They toiled painfully through a long stretch of white sand, then passed into a grove of banana trees, dark, cold, noiseless, but for the rumble of the ocean. When they reached the edge of the grove, Father Carillo raised his cross andcommanded the men to kneel. Rumour had told him what to expect, and he feared the effect on his simple andsuperstitious companions. He recited a chaplet, then, before giving them permission to rise, made a shortaddress."My children, be not afraid at what meets your eyes. The ways of all men are not our ways. These people haveseen fit to leave their dead unburied on the surface of the earth. But these poor bones can do you no more harm
 
than do those you have placed beneath the ground in Santa Barbara. Now rise and follow me, nor turn back asyou fear the wrath of God."He turned and strode forward, with the air of one to whom fear had no meaning; but even he closed his eyes for a moment in horror. The poor creatures behind mumbled and crossed themselves and clung to each other. The plain was a vast charnel-house. The sun, looking over the brow of an eastern hill, threw its pale rays uponthousands of crumbling skeletons, bleached by unnumbered suns, picked bare by dead and gone generations of carrion, white, rigid, sinister. Detached skulls lay in heaps, grinning derisively. Stark digits pointedthreateningly, as if the old warriors still guarded their domain. Other frames lay face downward, as though the broken teeth had bitten the dust in battle. Slender forms lay prone, their arms encircling cooking utensils, beautiful in form and colour. Great bowls and urns, toy canoes, mortars and pestles, of serpentine, sandstone,and steatite, wrought with a lost art,--if, indeed, the art had ever been known beyond this island,--and baked torichest dyes, were placed at the head and feet of skeletons more lofty in stature than their fellows.Father Carillo sprinkled holy water right and left, bidding his Indians chant a rosary for the souls which oncehad inhabited these appalling tenements. The Indians obeyed with clattering teeth, keeping their eyes fixedstonily upon the ground lest they stumble and fall amid yawning ribs.The ghastly tramp lasted two hours. The sun spurned the hill-top and cast a flood of light upon the ugly scene.The white bones grew whiter, dazzling the eyes of the living. They reached the foot of a mountain and began atoilsome ascent through a dark forest. Here new terrors awaited them. Skeletons sat propped against trees,grinning out of the dusk, gleaming in horrid relief against the mass of shadow. Father Carillo, with one eye over his shoulder, managed by dint of command, threats, and soothing words to get his little band to the top of thehill. Once, when revolt seemed imminent, he asked them scathingly if they wished to retrace their steps over the plain unprotected by the cross, and they clung to his skirts thereafter. When they reached the summit, they laydown to rest and eat their luncheon, Father Carillo reclining carefully on a large mat: his fine raiment was asource of no little anxiety. No skeletons kept them company here. They had left the last many yards below."Anacleto," commanded the priest, at the end of an hour, "crawl forward on thy hands and knees and peer over the brow of the mountain. Then come back and tell me if men like thyself are below."Anacleto obeyed, and returned in a few moments with bulging eyes and a broad smile of satisfaction. Peoplewere in the valley--a small band. They wore feathers like birds, and came and went from the base of the hill.There were no wigwams, no huts.Father Carillo rose at once. Bidding his Indians keep in the background, he walked to the jutting brow of thehill, and throwing a rapid glance downward came to a sudden halt. With one hand he held the cross well awayfrom him and high above his head. The sun blazed down on the burnished cross; on the white shining robes of the priest; on his calm benignant face thrown into fine relief by the white of the falling sleeve.In a moment a low murmur arose from the valley, then a sudden silence. Father Carillo, glancing downward,saw that the people had prostrated themselves.He began the descent, holding the cross aloft, chanting solemnly; his Indians, to whom he had given a swiftsignal, following and lifting up their voices likewise. The mountain on this side was bare, as if from fire, theincline shorter and steeper. The priest noted all things, although he never forgot his lines.Below was a little band of men and women. A broad plain swept from the mountain's foot, a forest broke itssweep, and the ocean thundered near. The people were clad in garments made from the feathered skins of birds,and were all past middle age. The foot of the mountain was perforated with caves.

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