Padre Ignacio; or, the Song of Temptation

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Author: Owen Wister

I

At Santa Ysabel del Mar the season was at one of those moments when the air rests quiet over land and sea. The old breezes were gone; the new ones were not yet risen. The flowers in the mission garden opened wide; no wind came by day or night to shake the loose petals from their stems. Along the basking, silent, many-colored shore gathered and lingered the crisp odors of the mountains. The dust hung golden and motionless long after the rider was behind the hill, and the Pacific lay like a floor of sapphire, whereon to walk beyond the setting sun into the East. One white sail shone there. Instead of an hour, it had been from dawn till afternoon in sight between the short headlands; and the Padre had hoped that it might be the ship his homesick heart awaited. But it had slowly passed. From an arch in his garden cloisters he was now watching the last of it. Presently it was gone, and the great ocean lay empty. The Padre put his glasses in his lap. For a short while he read in his breviary, but soon forgot it again. He looked at the flowers and sunny ridges, then at the huge blue triangle of sea which the opening of the hills let into sight. "Paradise," he murmured, "need not hold more beauty and peace. But I think I would exchange all my remaining years of this for one sight again of Paris or Seville. May God forgive me such a thought!"

Across the unstirred fragrance of oleanders the bell for vespers began to ring. Its tones passed over the Padre as he watched the sea in his garden. They reached his parishioners in their adobe dwellings near by. The gentle circles of sound floated outward upon the smooth, immense silence—over the vines and pear-trees; down the avenues of the olives; into the planted fields, whence women and children began to return; then out of the lap of the valley along the yellow uplands, where the men that rode among the cattle paused, looking down like birds at the map of their home. Then the sound widened, faint, unbroken, until it met Temptation in the guise of a youth, riding toward the Padre from the South, and cheered the steps of Temptation’s jaded horse.

"For a day, one single day of Paris!" repeated the Padre, gazing through his cloisters at the empty sea.

Once in the year the mother-world remembered him. Once in the year, from Spain, tokens and home-tidings came to him, sent by certain beloved friends of his youth. A barkentine brought him these messages. Whenever thus the mother-world remembered him, it was like the touch of a warm hand, a dear and tender caress; a distant life, by him long left behind, seemed to be drawing the exile homeward from these alien shores. As the time for his letters and packets drew near, the eyes of Padre Ignacio would be often fixed wistfully upon the harbor, watching for the barkentine. Sometimes, as to-day, he mistook other sails for hers, but hers he mistook never. That Pacific Ocean, which, for all its hues and jeweled mists, he could not learn to love, had, since long before his day, been furrowed by the keels of Spain. Traders, and adventurers, and men of God had passed along this coast, planting their colonies and cloisters; but it was not his ocean. In the year that we, a thin strip of patriots away over on the Atlantic edge of the continent, declared ourselves an independent nation, a Spanish ship, in the name of Saint Francis, was unloading the centuries of her own civilization at the Golden Gate. San Diego had come earlier. Then, slowly, as mission after mission was built along the soft coast wilderness, new ports were established—at Santa Barbara, and by Point San Luis for San Luis Obispo, which lay inland a little way up the gorge where it opened among the hills. Thus the world reached these missions by water; while on land, through the mountains, a road led to them, and also to many more that were too distant behind the hills for ships to serve—a rough road, long and lonely, punctuated with church towers and gardens. For the Fathers gradually so stationed their settlements that the traveler might each morning ride out from one mission and by evening of a day’s fair journey ride into the next. A lonely, rough, dangerous road, but lovely, too, with a name like music—El Camino Real. Like music also were the names of the missions—San Juan Capistrano, San Luis Rey de Francia, San Miguel, Santa Ynes—their very list is a song.

So there, by-and-by, was our continent, with the locomotive whistling from Savannah to Boston along its eastern edge, and on the western the scattered chimes of Spain ringing among the unpeopIed mountains. Thus grew the two sorts of civilization—not equally. We know what has happened since. To-day the locomotive is whistling also from The Golden Gate to San Diego; but still the old mission-road goes through the mountains, and along it the footsteps of vanished Spain are marked with roses, and broken cloisters, and the crucifix.

But this was 1855. Only the barkentine brought to Padre Ignacio the signs from the world that he once had known and loved so dearly. As for the new world making a rude noise to the northward, he trusted that it might keep away from Santa Ysabel, and he waited for the vessel that was overdue with its package containing his single worldly luxury.

As the little, ancient bronze bell continued swinging in the tower, its plaintive call reached something in the Padre’s memory. Softly, absently, he began to sing. He took up the slow strain not quite correctly, and dropped it, and took it up again, always in cadence with the bell.

[musical score appears here]

At length he heard himself, and, glancing at the belfry, smiled a little. "It is a pretty tune," he said, "and it always made me sorry for poor Fra Diavolo. Auber himself confessed to me that he had made it sad and put the hermitage bell to go with it, because he too was grieved at having to kill his villain, and wanted him, if possible, to die in a religious frame of mind. And Auber touched glasses with me and said—how well I remember it!—’Is it the good Lord, or is it merely the devil, that makes me always have a weakness for rascals?’ I told him it was the devil. I was not a priest then. I could not be so sure with my answer now." And then Padre Ignacio repeated Auber’s remark in French: "’Est-ce le bon Dieu, oui est-ce bien le diable, qui veut tonjours que j’aime les coquins?" I don’t know! I don’t know! I wonder if Auber has composed anything lately? I wonder who is singing ’Zerlina’ now?"

He cast a farewell look at the ocean, and took his steps between the monastic herbs, the jasmines and the oleanders to the sacristy. "At least," he said, "if we cannot carry with us into exile the friends and the places we have loved, music will go whither we go, even to an end of the world such as this.—Felipe!" he called to his organist. "Can they sing the music I taught them for the Dixit Dominus to-night?"

"Yes, father, surely."

"Then we will have that. And, Felipe—" The Padre crossed the chancel to the small, shabby organ. "Rise, my child, and listen. Here is something you can learn. Why, see now if you cannot learn it from a single hearing."

The swarthy boy of sixteen stood watching his master’s fingers, delicate and white, as they played. Thus, of his own accord, he had begun to watch them when a child of six; and the Padre had taken the wild, half-scared, spellbound creature and made a musician of him.

"There, Felipe!" he said now. "Can you do it? Slower, and more softly, muchacho mio. It is about the death of a man, and it should go with our bell."

The boy listened. "Then the father has played it a tone too low," said he, "for our bell rings the note of sol, or something very near it, as the father must surely know." He placed the melody in the right key—an easy thing for him; and the Padre was delighted.

"Ah, my Felipe," he exclaimed, "what could you and I not do if we had a better organ! Only a little better! See! above this row of keys would be a second row, and many more stops. Then we would make such music as has never yet been heard in California. But my people are so poor and so few! And some day I shall have passed from them, and it will be too late."

"Perhaps," ventured Felipe, "the Americanos—"

"They care nothing for us, Felipe. They are not of our religion—or of any religion, from what I can hear. Don’t forget my Dixit Dominus."

The Padre retired once more to the sacristy, while the horse that brought Temptation came over the hill.

The hour of service drew near; and as the Padre waited he once again stepped out for a look at the ocean; but the blue triangle of water lay like a picture in its frame of land, bare as the sky. "I think, from the color, though," said he, "that a little more wind must have begun out there."

The bell rang a last short summons to prayer. Along the road from the south a young rider, leading a pack-animal, ambled into the mission and dismounted. Church was not so much in his thoughts as food and, after due digestion, a bed; but the doors stood open, and, as everybody was passing within them, more variety was to be gained by joining this company than by waiting outside alone until they should return from their devotions. So he seated himself in a corner near the entrance, and after a brief, jaunty glance at the sunburned, shaggy congregation, made himself as comfortable as might be. He had not seen a face worth keeping his eyes open for. The simple choir and simple fold, gathered for even-song, paid him no attention—a rough American bound for the mines was but an object of aversion to them.

The Padre, of course, had been instantly aware of the stranger’s presence. To be aware of unaccustomed presences is the sixth sense with vicars of every creed and heresy; and if the parish is lonely and the worshipers few and seldom varying, a newcomer will gleam out like a new book to be read. And a trained priest learns to read keenly the faces of those who assemble to worship under his guidance. But American vagrants, with no thoughts save of gold-digging, and an overweening illiterate jargon for speech, had long ceased to interest this priest, even in his starvation for company and talk from the outside world; and therefore after the intoning he sat with his homesick thoughts unchanged, to draw both pain and enjoyment from the music that he had set to the Dixit Dominus. He listened to the tender chorus that opens William Tell; and, as the Latin psalm proceeded, pictures of the past rose between him and the altar. One after another came these strains he had taken from operas famous in their day, until at length the Padre was murmuring to some music seldom long out of his heart—not the Latin verse which the choir sang, but the original French words:

"Ah, voile man envie,
Voila mon seul desir:
Rendez moi ma patrie,
Ou laissez moi mourir."

Which may be rendered:

But one wish I implore,
One wish is all my cry:
Give back my native land once more,
Give back, or let me die.

Then it happened that his eye fell again upon the stranger near the door, and he skaightway forgot his Dixit Dominus. The face of the young man was no longer hidden by the slouching position he had at first taken. "I only noticed his clothes at first," thought the Padre. Restlessness was plain upon the handsome brow, and violence was in the mouth; but Padre Ignacio liked the eyes. "He is not saying any prayers," he surmised, presently. "I doubt if he has said any for a long while. And he knows my music. He is of educated people. He cannot be American. And now—yes, he has taken—I think it must be a flower, from his pocket. I shall have him to dine with me." And vespers ended with rosy clouds of eagerness drifting across the Padre’s brain.

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Chicago: Owen Wister, "I," Padre Ignacio; or, the Song of Temptation, ed. Paine, Albert Bigelow, 1861-1937 and trans. Townsend, R.S. in Padre Ignacio; or, the Song of Temptation (New York: A. L. Burt Company, 1916), Original Sources, accessed May 11, 2021, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=YAKUQIV65Q4ZN12.

MLA: Wister, Owen. "I." Padre Ignacio; or, the Song of Temptation, edited by Paine, Albert Bigelow, 1861-1937, and translated by Townsend, R.S., in Padre Ignacio; or, the Song of Temptation, Vol. 22, New York, A. L. Burt Company, 1916, Original Sources. 11 May. 2021. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=YAKUQIV65Q4ZN12.

Harvard: Wister, O, 'I' in Padre Ignacio; or, the Song of Temptation, ed. and trans. . cited in 1916, Padre Ignacio; or, the Song of Temptation, A. L. Burt Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 11 May 2021, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=YAKUQIV65Q4ZN12.