Chapter IV. The Cross of Santa Fe
Leaving San Diego and traveling northward along "El Camino Real," the highway which leads from mission to mission, we reach San Luis Rey, "King of the Missions," as it is sometimes called. Its church is the largest of all those erected by the padres, being one hundred and sixty feet long, fifty-eight feet wide, and sixty feet high. Its one square, two-story tower has a chime of bells, the sweet clear tones of which reached our ears while we were yet miles from the mission. Counting the arches of the long corridor, we find there are two hundred and fifty-six. This mission became very wealthy. At one time it had a baptized Indian population of several thousand, owned twenty-four thousand cattle, ten thousand horses, and one hundred thousand sheep, and harvested fourteen thousand bushels of grain a year.
Its prosperity was due in a great measure to good Padre Peyri, who had charge of it from its beginning. Many years afterwards, as we shall see, the padres were ordered by the Mexican government to leave their missions, the wealth they had gathered, and the Indians they had taught and cared for. Father Peyri, knowing how hard it would be for him to get away from his Indian children, as he called them, slipped off by night to San Diego. In the morning the Indians missed him. Learning what had happened, five hundred of them mounted their ponies in hot haste and galloped all the way to San Diego, forty-five miles, to bring him back by force. They arrived just as the ship, with Padre Peyri on board, was weighing anchor. Standing on deck with outstretched arms, the padre blessed them amid their tears and loud cries. Some flung themselves into the water and swam after the ship. Four reached it, and, climbing up its sides, so implored to be taken on board that the padre consented and carried them with him to Rome, where one afterwards became a priest.
The next link in our chain, the most beautiful of all the missions, is that of San Juan Capistrano. It was founded in 1776, the year of our Declaration of Independence, but in 1812 it was destroyed by an earthquake, the massive towers and noble arch falling in on the Indians, who were assembled in the church for morning prayers. Many of them were killed. The church has never been rebuilt.
It is Christmas Day when we reach San Gabriel, the next station on El Camino Real. Inside the great cactus fence which incloses the square about the mission we see a strangely mixed company, - Indians in their best clothes, their faces shining from a liberal use of mission soap and water; soldiers in their leather suits freshened up for the holiday; a few ranchmen in the gay dress of the times, riding beautiful horses; women and girls each brilliant in a bright-colored skirt with shawl or scarf gracefully draped over head and shoulders.
The Christmas Day morning service, held at four o'clock and known by the common people as the Rooster Mass, is long since over. The crowd is now gathered for the Pastorel, which, like the miracle plays of the Middle Ages, is a drama with characters taken from the Bible.
First to appear on the scene is an orchestra composed of young Indians playing violins, bass viols, reeds, flutes, and guitars. Closely following come the actors, representing San Gabriel and attendant angels, Satan, Blind Bartimeus, and a company of shepherds. The entertainment is very simple. There is the announcement of the birth of the Savior, the adoration of the babe, and the offering of gifts. The play concludes with a protracted struggle between San Gabriel and Satan for the possession of Blind Bartimeus, in which the saint finally comes off victor while the orchestra plays lively music. After the Pastorel there are games, dancing, and feasting. Every one seems happy, and it is with regret that we leave the gay scene.
Through the hills to the north, across the Arroyo Seco, not dry now, but a swift stream turbulent from the winter rains, we journey on. We pass Eagle Rock, a great bowlder high upon the green hillside, one of the landmarks of the region, and enter the valley of the Los Angeles River. After traveling for several hours, we come to a large plantation of trees, vines, and grainfields, in the midst of which lies the mission of San Fernando. Its land extends for miles on every side and is exceedingly fertile. In front of the beautiful cloisters, under tall and stately palm trees, a fountain sends high its sparkling water, which falls back with pleasant tinkle into a basin of carved stone.
When we reach San Buenaventura, the next mission on our route, we find priests and Indians exceedingly busy, for word has come from Monterey that a Yankee trading vessel will soon sail for the south, and cattle must be killed and the fat rendered into tallow for the market. As hides and tallow are about the only commodities the padres have for sale, this is an important event. Indians tend the caldrons of bubbling grease, and keep up the fires under the kettles. When the tallow is slightly cooled, they pour it into sacks made from the skins of animals. These, when filled with the hardened tallow, look as though each again held a plump beast.
Traveling up the coast we come one afternoon to
A golden bay 'neath soft blue skies Where on a hillside creamy rise The mission towers whose patron saint Is Barbara - with legend quaint.