The Beneficent Valley

AFTER the first cold fog of the California coast, there came sunny days and a sparkling ocean. Lazy days, given over to watching the ship’s wake, and to watching the water creatures that for a moment would show themselves, and to watching the western horizon, clear and incredibly far, its final streak of light surely the sunshine on Japan.

In a while the Mexican ports began, — a day here, an hour there. There would be a swift turning from the green ocean into a land-locked bay, always a light-blue bay with hills sheer to a light-blue sky, and with white adobe houses scattered about, wherever there was foothold between hill and sea.

At our imperious whistle, launches would come out with the ship’s mail and her coal; and boats would come out laden with fruits, flowers, parrots, shells, drawn-work, fans, pottery; and on the beautiful southern water would show the still reflections of the boats and of the red-robed boat-women.

For a day — or an hour — there would be loud bartering, shrill Spanish babbling, the screeching of parrots, and the rasping of coal, — then out again to the green ocean.

At Salina Cruz the stop was for passengers, fifty of them, — an opera troupe from Spain, — who, during the rest of the way, sang for us of nights on deck; complacent, wondrous nights, with moonlight upon us, and upon old Mexico across the water.

Early on the fifteenth morning the mountains of Guatemala loomed up, and soon we were standing off Port San José whistling for row-boats.

A train waited, and there was an all-day ride up the beautiful Central American Cordillera. Toward evening came the circling of a volcano whose ridges and cañons were rich in pink and purple and strongest greens; then the final rush over a splendid plain, the flash of a white stone bridge, and a glimpse of domes and palms above a level of rich brown tiles.

But this was only the Valley of the Hermitage and Guatemala City. My valley, the valley that had, it seemed, been especially made for me, lay still farther on in the mountains, and the next morning I started for it by mule team, for, thanks be, no railway leads there.

The road went for thirty miles straight toward the volcanoes, past a three-hundred-years-old Indian city and through many a pueblo. The streams were high, the stone bridges moss-grown. I wondered at the beauty of sky and trees. The magnificence of the trees gave me hope; surely the hills and the air that had quickened them would be able to do something for me.

At perhaps six o’clock in the afternoon, we got into the Valley, a great volcano-trough that has often been torn and sundered, and drove toward its ruined city, Antigua, that since the earthquake of Santa Marta, in the seventeen hundreds, has lain literally prostrate at the foot of Mount Fuego.

We followed an old, crooked, treeshaded road, across rivers and up and down barrancas. The sun was setting and shone like snow on the volcano tops; but the valley itself was almost darkened by the huge pyramidal shadow of Mount Agua.

Toward evening we entered Antigua by the Gate of the Arch of Saint Catherine, and followed along the Avenida del Calvario. There were trees, trees; and ruined churches; and old adobe houses, with crosses and saints carved above the doorways, and marble virgins in niches under far-jutting eaves.

Women were about in black shawls. All was peaceful, unearthly.

We drove through the town to the Hotel Palacio, a long adobe set back amongst coffee trees; the wretched Hotel Palacio with its dark mouldy rooms, and its dinners of black beans and tortillas; and for ten melancholy nights I slept at the Palacio.

By day I would prowl about the narrow streets or along the outlying old avenues. Often, while passing an isolated cane-stalk hut, or some deep, silent place under canopy of the fine trees, I would find myself wondering whether or not it would be too unconventional to come out here and live in the almost open, not too far from humans, yet away from deadly walls and doors. I would incline seriously to the idea for a moment, but did not have the courage: — the snakes, the rains, —nothing would come of it. But one blessed morning I happened upon what was left of the monastery La Recoleccion. I walked about its wide arcaded corridors and climbed to its domes and towers. And, on the moment, I knew that this monastery had been as especially made for me as had the valley.

But, even in Antigua-Guatemala, one may not enter a ruined monastery and set up housekeeping without leave. I must, so the hotel people told me, see the Doñas Quevedo about it.

I found the Doñas Quevedo, two oldish bachelor sisters, in a mellow adobe opposite the ruined cathedral. They were of the old Spanish school, and it seemed incredible to them that I should plan to live alone for a year on the monastery top. They could not understand, they did not approve.

But in the end, such was my insistence, — ethically the place was more mine than theirs, — the old sisters told me graciously that La Recoleccion was at my ‘disposition.’ A rental was named, also at my insistence, and the sisters delivered to me twenty-eight heavy brass keys, upon whose flattened thumb-pieces were carven all sorts of heavenly things.

More than this, the next morning— so kind are ladies of the old Spanish school — the Doñas Quevedo brought to the hotel a servant for me; they said that I, myself, might be unable to find one willing to live so eccentrically as I proposed.

This servant was an hija de la casa, — daughter of the house, — whose people, for generations, had been born and had lived and died in the service of the Quevedo family. She was, they said, a good cook, laundress, fetcher and carrier; her name was Innocente Bolanos, and with much pleasure they would lend her to me for a year.

And for a little more than a year I lived there in the old monastery, in that silent mediæval city, with the kind servant and a few books.

The walls of La Recoleccion inclosed large patios — gardens — surrounded by wide, arched corridors from which open thick-walled, windowless cells. I made no use of the cells, excepting, once in a while, to look about them for hidden treasure, but lived my year up on the roof among the broken domes and turrets.

The roof is flat, its brick pavement smooth and lustrous from wind and rain and sun, and from its chinks grow delicate flowers and fine grasses. It once had arches and vaulted roof of its own, and from the stumps of its broken columns I swung my hammocks and awnings. The night-hammock I hung in the dome that stands over the place of the high altar.

A perfect sleeping place, the dome. From the Calle Real — Royal Road — it seems entire, because the western wall and the rounding roof are entire; but from the side that gives upon the inner patio everything has been torn away, leaving it open to sun and air, but not to the rain, nor to the passer-by.

There are deep window-places here and there, massive as portals, with colossal stucco angels standing above them. The floor is of square bricks and, like that of the corridor outside, is grass-and-flower-grown.

My dining-room was a tower by the southern wall. I had a native carpenter make for it table and benches of mahogany, about the cheapest wood, and upon the walls I draped savannas of the rich cloth these people weave. But I did not cover the stucco angels, and the broken-toed creatures became a sort of company for me.

From the wide, arched doorway of my dining-room I had the whole southern sweep of the valley, with its miles of glistening coffee-bushes growing under the shade of quinine and lotus trees, its breadths of sugar-cane sweeping down the volcano from the woods above, and in the valley-centre fields of alfalfa and corn.

From the north corridor, where my day-hammocks hung, I had the tileroofed adobe city, the volcanoes, and coming down from a ring of far-away hills, the old stone aqueduct that God may have made when he made the valley.

On the morning we took possession, I stood with Innocente Bolanos in the doorway of the monastery kitchen and asked her if it could ever be made fit to cook our food in. And Innocente, as though challenged, set to work with shovel and brooms. For two days and far into two nights she toiled, until the brown ceiling-beams, the brown walltiles, the brown floor-bricks were shiny. Then with twenty pesos — about two dollars — she bought innumerable jars and ollas of buff and red and brown loza, the native ware, which she set on the deep brick ledges; and about the walls she hung woven fire-fans, carved molinillos for stirring chocolate, strings of peppers, bunches of plantains.

On the evening of the third day candles were placed about in corners and on ledges, wherever there happened to be an old stone socket; fires were lighted in the square, shallow holes of the mediæval range; dinner was put to cook in the odd utensils of Indian make, and the big kitchen was athrob again; probably as full of old Spanish charm as before the night of Santa Marta.

In the spacious kitchen patio we found, half-hidden by vines, three pilas — fountains. One was tree-shaded and sunken, one was out in the sun, one was in the shade of the wall. Square brick-walled things, the pilas, each with its moss-grown tower and its idiotic stone face for the spewing of the water. They had been dry since the night of Santa Marta, and we found them full of stones and shrubs and poisonous spiders. But Innocente brought Indian workmen; the Doñas Quevedo brought a government permit; there were a few days of clearing, retubing, scraping, polishing; and once more through the thick stone lips came pouring water from the old aqueduct.

La Recoleccion is a wondrous and beautiful place at sunrise, at noon, at sunset. In its patios are columns and arches that lie as they fell on the night of Santa Marta; vines and crimson flowers grow upon them, and upon the standing gates grow wheat and cactus plants.

But columns and vines can take malevolent shapes by night. During the first week in the monastery I saw thieves and murderers of nights, and Innocente saw ghosts and devils. We needed more humans about. I told Innocente that if she could find a native family, the members of which would be willing to bathe at the pila every day, she might bring them to live in her patio.

In a trice she found just the people: a ladino woman, who fashioned for sale little figures of wax and straw, her halfgrown daughters, and her awful grandmother.

Innocente said these people would be only too happy to bathe instead of paying rent. But she did not let them have the liberty of her kitchen; they were given a half-dozen cells farther up the corridor, and they cooked out in the open on a portable brazier.

In the early morning they would go down to the sunken pila and throw calabashfuls of water over their shoulders; then all day and until far into the night the woman and her daughters would sit on the damp bricks in the doorway of a dreadful cell, intent on their absurd craft; and all day the grandmother would kneel, bent into unhuman shape, grinding corn on a stone, or washing cacao beans on a stone, or toasting tortillas on a stone — the soles of her terrible feet showing, from under the dull skirt, like lumps of baked mud.

Of evenings, after I had watched the sun go down behind the pale volcano Acatenango, watched the fading of the after-colors on the hills at the east, watched the coming of the stars, — they never failed me, — I would turn from the great things of the valley and look down upon the ladino-life in the kitchen patio.

The cell-bound, strangely-treed garden would be dark but for the splotch of strong flickering light in the corner where the native women were: Innocente at the pila washing dishes by the light of pitch-sticks; the woman and her daughters by their black doorway, moulding pink wax by the light of pitch-sticks; and, well out on the patio bricks, the old woman stirring a witch’s cauldron, their evening meal, over the charcoal brazier.

Hours later, in what they call the richness of the night, maybe eleven o’clock, they would put aside their work and huddle over the nightly cups of hot chocolate; huddle in a circle about the burning sticks, their faces showing red, coppery, bright yellow, in the peculiar changing light.

Nor was I without the companionship of my equals. The Doñas Quevedo visited me; at first from frank curiosity, with almost unbelieving wonderment; but later, satisfied that I was safe and sane, they came every second day, and sat with me in the hammocks, or upon the broken brick and stone work of the northern roof. They dressed in black, with Early Victorian collars and brooches, and with heavy silk shawls about their heads. They were kind and formal, women with whom one might have long friendship untainted by familiarity. They always smoked as they talked; immediately the old-fashioned salutations were over, they would open little silver boxes and take therefrom the cigarettes, the bits of flint and steel, the pieces of tow. They could remember their greatgrandparents, in whose house they still lived; and, with here and there an artful question from me, they would keep for hours on the phases of old Spanish and Indian life.

The rains broke in April. The mountains and valley became a-wash with every shade of green, and the rough volcano, Fuego, stood out like a turquoise. Often while the sun was still bright on Antigua, I would see a storm moving about the horizon. It would circle from northeast to southeast, then come down across the valley, a black wall of water, bringing with it the fearful lightning. There would be no warning, no large, solitary rain-drops, no slanting shower. The compact, straightfalling water would come swiftly, beating the earth like horses’ hoofs. I would hear it loud upon the bricks of Innocente’s patio before the sun had quite left my own. A moment more, and both patios would be lakes, each with a whirlpool in the centre, where the water would be rushing away through holes that had been cut for it, centuries ago, in the centre stones.

The sky would be black and thunderous for perhaps an hour, then the storm would go over to the cemetery hills, and I would go down and walk along the streaming streets. The air would be sweet and the hills bright again; the roofs, newly washed, would show rich and dark against the cleared sky; doves would alight upon them and eat of the grass blades that grew in the hollows of the tilings. Buzzards, also, would descend to the housetops, and stand in rows with wings outstretched, drying in the sun.

Of mornings I would arise at the madrugada — break of day — and watch the sun come up from the Valley of the Hermitage, come up so quickly that the light would flow like milk down the opposite volcano; and, after the coffee, I would walk out the tree-darkened Alameda of Calvario to meet the Indian women on their way into Antigua with its day’s food.

They were from little ranchos and pueblos, sometimes four leagues away. They would come trotting in groups, with jars and baskets on their heads, the dull blues and reds of their embroidered trappings showing richly against the bright colors about. They seemed to me almost majestic, so strong, straight, silent, calm they were, with steady eyes that told nothing. Inscrutable women. I often wondered what they saw when they lifted their eyes to the trees, the sky, the mighty cordillera. They would enter and cross the city to the plaza,— the big square in front of the church of La Merced,— and I would follow along with them and sit on the church steps, and watch them arrange their fruits, vegetables, eggs, chickens, flowers, milk, and honey, under the big seybo-trees of the plaza; and all the morning I would sit there watching the peculiar life of the Plaza of La Merced.

Blessed morning sun on the steps of La Merced! I would feel ready for anything: for a swift walk out the aqueduct, for a run up and down the volcanoes; but in reality, I would sit, very quiet, on the church steps.

Until June these strolls were all I had been equal to, and I always returned from them slowly; but by June I wished to go away out on the Camino Real, and to follow the alluring lanes that I could see from my housetop, shaded lanes that led over hills to the pueblos.

I wrote for permission. I had, of course, to wait six weeks for an answer; but six weeks in Antigua are but as a watch in the night.

Yes; I might walk out the old road; but I might walk only half an hour out, then rest an hour before returning.

The restrictions were hard, I felt, equal to great things; but on the first morning, when my half-hour was up, I found myself hardly beyond the Gate of the Arch of Saint Catherine, and was glad to sit down under a mango tree for the hour’s rest.

Not until October got into the air could I do better.

By November I got as far as the house of Juan Capistrano Robledo, a weaver of fire-fans.

Juan Capistrano was an old friend of mine; I had often bought his wares at the monastery gate; so, that first day, as his wide front door stood open and he himself sat busy within, I entered and asked him to make a fan for me; and I spent my hour watching him plait the iris reeds.

There were no flowers in Juan Capistrano’s patio, and the old man was well set off by the severe walls and the stretch of brick pavement that so often struck his own color-tone. Then too, with no trees against it, the square of sky above the warm tilings seemed wondrous delicate and heavenly.

Juan Capistrano, a serious man, thought his work important. He would stretch and bend each reed; the less than perfect he would throw aside; and as he worked, his face was grave, not a thought wandered.

And I watched him as seriously, for I too would become a weaver of fire-fans.

So until gentle December I sat out my hour, morning after morning, weaving iris reeds in the patio of Juan Capistrano Robledo.

The air of the beneficent valley! With the desire for work came the desire for companionship, another impulse that had long been side-tracked; and I began to return the visits of the Doñas Quevedo.

Their house had great charm for me; not the tomb-like parlors, but the patio with its noble corridors, its long run of heavily-barred windows, its long run of vine-covered columns, and its twelve apostles standing, life-sized, each over his own deep doorway.

Out in the centre, amongst the flowers,gabbled parrots and paroquets; and, near the gargoyled pila, upturned water-jars were always drying in the sun.

I would sit on one of the worn stone seats under the pointed auricaria tree, drink tiste from a black calabash, and listen to traditions and vividly-told tales of happenings that were, to me, strange enough.

These sincere women showed me many a quaint kindness. On the feast of Santa Marta, anniversary of the great destruction, they importuned me to stay the night with them, —it seemed that on this date one ‘Stanislau the Watchful’ is wont to arise from his tomb under the place of the high altar, and prowl the ‘Recoleccion’; and when I would not,—a Central American bedroom is so much more dangerous than a ghost, — they, much distressed, followed me home and wound about my wrist a rosary, blessed by Pius IX, that would prevent all sorts of things.

At Christmas, when I came down with nostalgia, they brought me to the house of their old friends to see the miniature Bethlehems that are always arranged in rooms set aside for that purpose.

And again, when I began to thirst for music ‘as the hart panteth after the water brooks,’ they brought to my sunset roof a wonderful young man who had been touched by the gods and Munich, and who, until far into the perfect January night, played for us with rapture on the violin.

By February I could walk to the nearest pueblo, which was a great point for me. I had long wished to see the Indian women at their weaving; and I had long wished to learn the secret of the calmness and silence, whether it were from almost superhuman intelligence, or from stupidity.

So from February until May I sat weaving with the women of San Pedro.

Innocente came walking down the lanes and over the hills with me the first morning, carrying the primitive loom, but unwillingly, — she disapproved, — and she bargained in ‘Quiche Spanish,’ that, for moneys, I be allowed to sit in the midst of them, and that they teach me to set the threads and charge the shuttle.

They looked at her as she explained energetically; but if they understood they gave no sign, and they made no offer to help me.

I took my loom over beside a woman who was about to set her threads, and I sat upon the ground beside her and did as she did, turn for turn.

We all sat in the sun,— the shade gives fever, — and not a word would be spoken. Hour after hour of silence, day after day. What a time for thinking, for imaginings! But the forest women sat dull-eyed; they seemed not even to think of the patterns they wove. For generations had their mothers been weaving these same men and birds and trees, and now the long brown fingers seemed to need no guidance.

By May, I too knew the weave and the patterns; knew them as though for generations my mothers had sat in the sun at San Pedro; and by May I knew that the majestic silence of the Indian women was not from intelligence, and that when they lifted their eyes to the sky, the forest, the cordillera, they saw nothing at all.

One morning in May I walked clear across the valley and halfway up the high hill Tigre, to a coffee plantation, whose owner, the widowed Doha Solidad, friend to the Quevedos, I knew very well.

This finca is one of the few that retain the old spirit and customs. Houses of Indian laborers are just inside the gates; rows of thatched bamboo huts along clean lanes, each hut with its vegetable patch and its plantain bushes, its pig, hens, dogs, parrots, and naked babies; and its leathery old woman grinding something upon a stone.

There is a school in the pueblo, and a church, the unshaven padre of which lives at the house of Doña Solidad, along with generations of her poor relations.

The coffee was in bloom that May morning, and Doña Solidad took me to the west veranda to see the glory of it; hundreds of thousands of fine little trees with dark polished leaves, their stiff branches dragged down by weight of white blossoms.

We had breakfast there on the western veranda, the coarse finca breakfast, black beans, tortillas, tamales, roasted plantains.

When I was leaving, Doña Solidad insisted that I let a servant accompany me, and it pleased me, when we reached home, to hear this strong Indian woman complain to Innocente that she was fagged out; that the ‘Americana’ walked so strong, so swift, like a man.

In May my year was rounded, and from that year are left me many a fine recollection, illusive but dominating: the gradual changing of the valley colors, the pageants and music of Holy Week, the gathering of the coffee; memories of Indian women in scarlet, washing clothes by the brooks, of charcoalcarriers in the sun, of beggars sitting by stone crosses; memories of lonely evening streets, and of dark young men in black cloaks standing beneath grated windows; memories of slow-walking women, saying the rosary on the way from vespers; memories of long rows of cocoanut palms, their slim gray bodies and green plumes delicate against the sky, their splendid shadows black on field, or road, or white adobe wall; memories of the nights: of the momentary waking in the depth of a January night to feel on cheek and forehead the tempered north wind; the momentary waking in a July tempest to the pounding of rain out in the blackness, — rain that could not enter, could not be seen, but that hung in under the dome its blessed gifts, ozone, electricity, love of life.