BLACK CAT POEMS
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Presidio de San Francisco, 1800
Looking seaward, o'er the sand-hills stands the fortress, old and quaint,
By the San Francisco friars lifted to their patron saint--
Sponsor to that wondrous city, now apostate to the creed,
On whose youthful walls the Padre saw the angel's golden reed;
All its trophies long since scattered, all its blazon brushed away,
And the flag that flies above it but a triumph of today.
Never scar of siege or battle challenges the wandering eye--
Never breach of warlike onset holds the curious passerby;
Only one sweet human fancy interweaves its threads of gold
With the plain and homespun present, and a love that ne'er grows old;
Only one thing holds its crumbling walls above the meaner dust--
Listen to the simple story of a woman's love and trust.
Count von Resanoff, the Russian, envoy of the mighty Czar,
Stood beside the deep embrasures where the brazen cannon are.
He with grave provincial magnates long had held serene debate
On the Treaty of Alliance and the high affairs of state;
He, from grave provincial magnates, oft had turned to talk apart
With the Commandante's daughter, on the questions of the heart,
Until points of gravest import yielded slowly, one by one,
And by Love was consummated what Diplomacy begun;
Till beside the deep embrasures, where the brazen cannon are,
He received the twofold contract for approval of the Czar;
Till beside the brazen cannon the betrothèd bade adieu,
And, from sally-port and gateway, north the Russian eagles flew.
Long beside the deep embrasures, where the brazen cannon are,
Did they wait the promised bridegroom and the answer of the Czar;
Day by day on wall and bastion beat the hollow empty breeze--
Day by day the sunlight glittered on the vacant, smiling seas;
Week by week the near hills whitened in their dusty leather cloaks--
Week by week the far hills darkened from the fringing plain of oaks;
Till the rains came, and far-breaking, on the fierce southwester tossed,
Dashed the whole long coast with color, and then vanished and were lost.
So each year the seasons shifted; wet and warm and drear and dry;
Half a year of clouds and flowers--half a year of dust and sky.
Still it brought no ship or message--brought no tiding ill nor meet
For the statesmanlike Commander, for the daughter fair and sweet.
Yet she heard the varying message, voiceless to all ears beside:
"He will come," the flowers whispered; "Come no more," the dry hills sighed.
Still she found him with the waters lifted by the morning breeze--
Still she lost him with the folding of the great white-tented seas;
Until hollows chased the dimples from her cheeks of olive brown,
And at times a swift, shy moisture dragged the long sweet lashes down;
Or the small mouth curved and quivered as for some denied caress,
And the fair young brow was knitted in an infantine distress.
Then the grim Commander, pacing where the brazen cannon are,
Comforted the maid with proverbs--wisdom gathered from afar;
Bits of ancient observation by his fathers garnered, each
As a pebble worn and polished in the current of his speech:
"'Those who wait the coming rider travel twice as far as he';
'Tired wench and coming butter never did in time agree.'
"'He that getteth himself honey, though a clown, he shall have flies';
'In the end God grinds the miller'; 'In the dark the mole has eyes.'
"'He whose father is Alcalde, of his trial hath no fear,'--
And be sure the Count has reasons that will make his conduct clear."
Then the voice sententious faltered, and the wisdom it would teach
Lost itself in fondest trifles of his soft Castilian speech;
And on "Concha," "Conchitita," and "Conchita" he would dwell
With the fond reiteration which the Spaniard knows so well.
So with proverbs and caresses, half in faith and half in doubt,
Every day some hope was kindled, flickered, faded, and went out.
Yearly, down the hillside sweeping, came the stately cavalcade,
Bringing revel to vaquero, joy and comfort to each maid;
Bringing days of formal visit, social feast and rustic sport;
Of bull-baiting on the plaza, of love-making in the court.
Vainly then at Concha's lattice--vainly as the idle wind
Rose the thin high Spanish tenor that bespoke the youth too kind;
Vainly, leaning from their saddles, caballeros, bold and fleet,
Plucked for her the buried chicken from beneath their mustang's feet;
So in vain the barren hillsides with their gay serapes blazed,
Blazed and vanished in the dust-cloud that their flying hoofs had raised.
Then the drum called from the rampart, and once more with patient mien
The Commander and his daughter each took up the dull routine--
Each took up the petty duties of a life apart and lone,
Till the slow years wrought a music in its dreary monotone.
Forty years on wall and bastion swept the hollow idle breeze,
Since the Russian eagle fluttered from the California seas.
Forty years on wall and bastion wrought its slow but sure decay;
And St. George's cross was lifted in the port of Monterey.
And the citadel was lighted, and the hall was gayly dressed,
All to honor Sir George Simpson, famous traveller and guest.
Far and near the people gathered to the costly banquet set,
And exchanged congratulation with the English baronet;
Till the formal speeches ended, and amidst the laugh and wine
Some one spoke of Concha's lover--heedless of the warning sign.
Quickly then cried Sir George Simpson: "Speak no ill of him, I pray.
He is dead. He died, poor fellow, forty years ago this day.
'Died while speeding home to Russia, falling from a fractious horse.
Left a sweetheart too, they tell me. Married, I suppose, of course!
"Lives she yet?" A death-like silence fell on banquet, guests and hall,
And a trembling figure rising fixed the awe-struck gaze of all.
Two black eyes in darkened orbits gleamed beneath the nun's white hood;
Black serge hid the wasted figure, bowed and stricken where it stood.
"Lives she yet?" Sir George repeated. All were hushed as Concha drew
Closer yet her nun's attire. "Señor, pardon, she died too!"
poems by Bret Harte