The Flight of Padre Peyri

One of the few settlements of the old mission Indians remaining in California is Pala, a little village tucked away amidst some of the most charming scenery to be found in the southern part of the state. It is twenty miles east from Mission San Luis Rey, of which mission it was an asistencia, or branch, and twenty-four miles from Oceanside, the nearest point on the coast. The village stands in a valley which is completely surrounded by mountains, high and low, far and near, uniting with it in a succession of beautiful pictures around the entire horizon. To the east, the mountains pile themselves up into huge masses, their tips hidden frequently by clouds, and by the fogs of early morning; toward the west, they fall away into low-lying hills, allowing the sea-breeze of every warm afternoon to sweep the village over them, and through the gap of the San Luis Rey River and Valley. At all times of the year the color and light and shade in every part of the valley are most lovely, delighting the artist’s eye with a whole gamut of arial perspective; but it is in the spring that the hillsides and valley put on their most gorgeous robes, from the lightest tints of yellow and green, down through every hue and tone of red, blue and purple, soft and brilliant, pricked out here and there with spots of intense, flaming yellow and orange, or deepest crimson. Such color scenes are not common even in California; but on account of its comparative inaccessibility, few people visit Pala, and the village has been left much to itself in these latter days of American life in the state. The Indians live the life of the poorest class of Mexicans, dwell in adobe huts, and pursue an agricultural occupation.

During the last week of May, 1895, I passed two days in this interesting place, exploring the remains of the asistencia, and sketching the unique bell-tower and near-by mission houses. I was an object of interest to all who saw me, but was not favored with much company until the second afternoon, when, after I had passed an hour or so in the campo santo, an old Indian slowly appeared and greeted me. He must have been nearly eighty years old, and he was obliged to use a cane to assist his slow and faltering steps. Several times during the two days I had seen him, sitting in the sun on the rough porch of a house close by, or ambling slowly about, and had been struck with his appearance. Although bent with his years, he was tall, and, in his younger days, must have had a graceful, as well as powerful, figure, traces of it remaining still, in spite of his decrepitude. But his face was the most noticeable thing about him. Notwithstanding the dimness of age, there was a wonderful amount of intelligence and animation in his expression, and the deep, black eyes could hardly have been brighter and more piercing at the age of forty than they now appeared. His long straight hair was still thick, but very grey. He wore the ordinary dress of the poor man. He was, in fine, a specimen of what the missions could do with the Indians when working on the best material to be found among them.

“Buenos dias, Seor,” he said gravely, as he came near.

“Buenos dias.”

“Will the Seor be disturbed if I stay here awhile and watch him work?” he continued in Spanish, which he spoke rather slowly, but with as much ease and correctness as a Mexican.

I answered I should be glad to have him remain so long as he pleased, and, in return, after he had seated himself beside me on an old ruined adobe wall, asked if he had lived long here.

“For over sixty years, Seor.”

“And where did you spend your early years, for I think you have seen many more than sixty?” I asked.

“Si, Seor, I am eighty-one now. Until I was about twenty, I lived at Mission San Luis Rey, twenty miles from here. Has the Seor ever seen San Luis Rey?”

I nodded, continuing with my sketch.

“Ah! that was a beautiful mission sixty years ago,” the old man said, in a tone of sad retrospect.

“Tell me about it,” I said. “In those days, sixty years ago, the mission must have been perfect, with no ruins to mar its beauty. And were there not many neophytes at that time?” I added.

“Seor, San Luis Rey was the largest mission in California. So much larger than this place, although Pala had many more Indians in those days, before the padres were driven away, that it seemed to me like a city. There were more than two thousand Indians, and all worked busily from morning until night, the men plowing and planting in the fields, or making adobes for building houses, and the women weaving and sewing and cooking. Every one had something to do, and knew it must be done, and all were willing and glad to do it; for we all dearly loved the padre, he was so good, and it was a happiness to do what he demanded of us.”

“You speak of Padre Peyri, do you not?” I asked.

“Si, Seor. Padre Peyri was the head of the mission, and no one could do anything unless he had the padre’s consent. There was almost always a second padre there, but this second padre never stayed long, and when one went away, another would come in his place; but Padre Peyri was there all the time, and never left the mission until he went back to Mexico.”

“And what,” I asked, “did you do in those days, before you were large enough for a man’s work?”

“I worked with the children, for the children had their own work to do just the same as the grown people. We had to go to school at the mission every day, to learn to speak Spanish, and to say the doctrina cristiana, to read and write; but not all the children could get so far as to write, for it was hard for them to learn, and only the brightest ones were ever able to write more than their names. But it was not so hard for me, for I wished to learn, and the padres liked to teach me. Then, after school, we had other work – to fetch wood for the fires; to drive the cows to the fields; to feed and water the horses at the mission, and all such things that boys can do. There were a hundred boys or more in the country around, and many of them seldom came to the mission except for school and Sunday mass; but there were always enough, and more than enough, to do all the work, and they had plenty of time for play. But my work was different from that of the other boys. I was one of the two boys who waited on the padres at meal times, swept the mission rooms and walks, and were ready to do any errands the padres wished. Then, for three years, I was one of the altar boys, until I could play well enough to go into the choir. And that is what I liked better than anything else – to play on my violin. I began to learn when I was twelve years old. I used to listen to the boys of the choir, when they were practicing their mass music, and again on Sundays in the church, and wish I, too, could learn to make that beautiful music. Many times I implored the padre to let me learn, and he would say: ‘After a little, my son, when you are old enough; it is a difficult instrument to learn.’ I knew he was right, but did not like to wait. At last, however, he told me I was to begin, and the very next day gave me a violin, and sent me to the choir teacher. It was a happy day for me.”

“Tell me something about Padre Peyri,” I asked.

“Seor, I could talk all day long about that good man. He was so kind and gentle to all, that no one but would have been willing to die for him, if he had asked such a thing. He was not a large man, but was as strong as many of the Indians, and he worked as hard as any one of us. I have heard my mother tell how he helped with his own hands to build the church and the other houses of the mission, and worked all day, so long as it was light, hardly stopping to take time to eat. She said he seemed to think of nothing but to get all the buildings finished, and was unhappy until that was done. She saw him on the day he first came from Mission San Diego with a few workmen and soldiers to start the mission. It was in the afternoon, and the padre and his men passed the time till nightfall in making a few huts for themselves like those of the Indians. The next morning, before he would permit anything else to be done, he made an altar of earth, which he covered all over with the green growing grass, and there offered up a sacrifice to his God. He had with him some children he had brought from San Diego, and after the mass he baptized them. My mother and some of the Indians had been to San Diego, to the mission there, and were not afraid, but nearly all the Indians did not dare come near.

“As soon as the mass was ended, the padre marked out on the ground the lines for the mission buildings, and the men went to work making adobes. After a few days, the Indians began to lose their fear of the cristianos, and it was not long before they were helping in all the work to be done. The padre paid them every day for what they did; he would give them clothes or something to eat, and they were very glad to work for him; and it was only a short time when a great crowd was busy on the buildings. My mother told me all this, Seor, for that was long before I was born, – more than fifteen years. She was a young girl then. My mother told the Indians how good the padres were to them at San Diego, and did all she could to bring them to work for the mission. I was her first child, and, at her wish, the padre named me after himself -Antonio. But all the mission buildings were finished in a few years, and they, have never been changed except by falling into ruins. I have not been to San Luis Rey for a long, long time, for I cannot bear to go there and see the poor old buildings tumbling to the ground – at least that is what they were doing until Padre O’Keefe came from Santa Barbara to live there and take charge of the mission. I am glad it is in his care; but he cannot bring back the old days, for the Indians are nearly all gone now.

“But the Seor wishes to hear about the padre. I think Padre Peyri was nearly fifty years old when I was born, and he had been at the mission all the time since he started it, about fifteen years before. How he did love his mission, and how proud he was of it! And he was right to be proud, for it was the finest mission in the country, and the largest also. Every one who came there praised the padre for the wonders he had done; and that made him very happy. After his day’s work was over, he liked to walk about in the neighborhood, looking at, and seeing, everything – the ground, the trees and the sky, listening to the singing of the birds, and watching the sun sink out of sight in the west; but above all else, gazing at the mission, at the beautiful big church, and the building and arches around the patio. Sometimes when I came to him at his bidding, I would see him smiling to himself, as though he was happy to have been able to raise up such a good work to his Lord.

“But alas! Seor, those happy times could not last always. I do not understand very well the trouble that was between the missions and the Governor – it has always been too much for my poor head – but I suppose the Seor knows all about it. The Governor wished the Indians to be taken away from the missions, and live in pueblos of their own; but the Indians did not like it, nor the padres either; and it made trouble for many years. I was too young to think much about it, but I used to hear the Indians talking among themselves of what they heard from time to time. I asked my father why the Governor could take the Indians away from the missions. He told me it was the wish of Mexico that we should not live in the missions any longer, but have our own land, and work for money. ‘But must we leave our padre here, and not see him any more?’ I asked my father.

“‘We may have to go away from here,’ he answered, ‘but the padre would be our padre still, and we should see him at mass and at other times; but it would not be as it is now.'”

“‘I will never leave here,’ I said to him, ‘as long as the padre stays; I do not want to go off to work for myself.'”

“But the change, Seor, was long in coming, and before it did come, there was another and a greater change at the mission. Well do I remember the day when first I knew, without a doubt, that our old life was at an end. It was a dark and stormy Saturday in early winter. Just before nightfall, a traveler arrived at the mission from the north. Alone and riding slowly a tired horse, which looked as if it had been driven long and hard, he approached, gazing around at the church and all the buildings within sight. I was driving one of the cows home from the pasture to provide milk for the padre’s supper, and saw him as he reached the mission. As soon as I came up to him, he asked me:”

“‘Is the padre here?'”

“‘Si, Seor.'”

“‘Tell him Don Manuel wishes to see him at once,’ he said, in a commanding tone.”

“Calling one of the boys not far away to look after the cow, and to take care of the stranger’s horse, I went to the padre’s room and knocked. After waiting a moment, and getting no reply, I knocked again. Hearing no sound, I opened the door and went in. The room was empty, but the door leading into a small side room, from which was an entrance into the church for the padre’s use, stood open, and I knew he was in the church. At any other time I would have hesitated, but the traveler had spoken so sternly that I dared not delay, so went on into the church. There was the padre kneeling before the altar of our patron saint, San Luis Rey, his rosary of beautiful gold beads and ivory cross in his hands; but so still one would have said he himself was a statue. I waited again, in hopes he would finish his prayer and come away; but the minutes went by and still he did not move. At last I stepped toward him, stumbling a little against one of the seats that he might know some one was there. He heard the sound and, rising slowly, turned and came toward the door near which I stood. When he saw me he asked what was wanted. I told him.”

“Is it come at last?’ he said, more to himself than to me, and walked slowly, with bowed head, out of the church. I followed, closing the door of the church and of the little side room, and saw once more the traveler, as he rose from his knees, after receiving the padre’s blessing. A moment later he followed the padre into his room.”

“I did not see them again until supper time, when I had to wait at table. They had been some minutes at supper, but were so occupied with their talk that they had eaten scarcely anything. The stranger was speaking when I went in.”

“‘But, padre,’ he said, ‘what will become of your charge here, if you carry out your intention? You know they look up to you as the head and soul of this great mission, and would be, indeed, as sheep without their shepherd, if you ‘”

“‘My son,’ interrupted the padre, with a look toward me, ‘we will speak of that another time.'”

“Nothing more was said until after I had left them. I had seen the look the padre sent in my direction. Had not it been at a time when every one was fearing a change of some kind at the mission, I should have thought nothing of it; but at the time, I knew we might expect something to occur almost any day; so that when he interrupted the stranger, it was only after enough had been said to fill me with fear. I knew, from what he said about the sheep being without a shepherd, that we might, in some way, lose our padre. As soon as I was free I hastened out to find Miguel, the boy who had taken the stranger’s horse. He had gone to his house, a little way from the church.”

“‘Miguel,’ I asked, ‘do you know who is this visitor, Don Manuel, and why he is come?'”

“‘He came from Los Angeles, on important business with the padre,’ Miguel replied.”

“‘How do you know he is from Los Angeles, and that his business is important?'”

“‘Because, while you were seeking the padre, Don Manuel was so impatient at your delay that he could not stand still, and kept striding up and down the length of the arcade, muttering to himself. Once I caught the words that if the padre but knew the importance of his business, he would make great haste. When I led away his horse, he told me to take good care of it, for it must carry him as far on his way tomorrow as it had to-day from Los Angeles.'”

“And what is this important business?'”

“Quien sabe!’ answered Miguel, with a shrug of his shoulders.”

“This was very little to be sure, and it served only to increase my fear that all was not right.”

“But I heard nothing further that night.”

“The next day was the Sabbath. Nothing occurred before mass; breakfast was eaten by the stranger, alone in the padres’ dining-room, and the padre was not seen by any one until the hour for mass. The other padre was here at Pala to take the place of the fraile who was sick. The beautiful church was crowded, every neophyte casting a glance now and then at Don Manuel, who was seated in front, watching the door by which the padre was to enter. But it was not until all had begun to wonder what was the reason for his delay, and to grow uneasy and whisper softly to each other, looking at the stranger as though they connected him with some trouble about to befall the mission and their padre. For in those days very little was necessary to stir up fears of a change all knew might come suddenly at any time. At last the door opened, and the padre came slowly into the church. He was pale, and looked sad and troubled, but went through the service in his usual manner. But when he came to the sermon, it seemed as if he could not go on. He did not take a text from which to preach, but began at once to talk to us in his earnest, gentle voice, saying we must look to God as our father, as one who loved us and would guide us in all this life. Padre Peyri did not preach to us like the fathers at other missions: he seldom said anything about hell and the punishments waiting for us if we were wicked, but talked to us and preached about the love of God and His Son Jesus Christ, and our duty to them, not from fear of future punishment, but because we owed it to them, as we owed our earthly parents love and respect. This morning he was more than ever solemn, and before the close of his short talk, many of his listeners had tears in their eyes. More than once he had to stop for a moment, to regain control of his voice which, all through his talk, trembled and sometimes was hardly above a whisper. As soon as the service was ended, he left the church, followed quickly by the stranger.”

“I hastened from the choir and church to the padre’s room to be ready at hand in case he should want anything. He was not there, but I found him in the patio, talking earnestly with Don Manuel, as they walked up and down the cloister. As soon as he saw me, he told me to give orders to have the visitor’s horse ready for him immediately after dinner. I did so, and on coming back from the large dining-room, where I told my errand to one of the mozos, found the padre and Don Manuel just sitting down to their own dinner. The padre ate little; but there was nothing else to make me think that anything was wrong, and had not it been for the night before, and the morning’s mass, I should have thought nothing of it. But now every little thing was large and important in my eyes; and although nothing was said but what might have been said by any visitor at any time, I grew more and more heavy-hearted. After they had finished eating, which they did very quickly, the stranger prepared to leave. Gathering up his sombrero and zarape, and receiving a small package, which looked like a bundle of letters, from the padre, he strode out to his horse, already waiting for him in front of the building, the padre close behind him.”

“I took my place by the horse, and pretended to be looking at the saddle, to see that everything was right, while I tried to hear what the padre and Don Manuel were saying; but they spoke too low for me to make out more than a word now and then. I heard Don Manuel say ‘San Diego;’ ‘the Pocahontas, a small ship but;’ ‘Spain,’ and a few other words of no significance. Padre Peyri said hardly a word, but stood with bowed head, and eyes cast on the ground. At last Don Manuel knelt to receive the padre’s blessing, and with a last low sentence, and an ‘adios,’ spoken aloud, as he sprang to his horse, he dashed off down the hill until he came to the mission road which runs from San Diego into the far north. The padre watched him turn his horse’s head toward the south, and disappear behind a hill; a few minutes later he came into sight again as he ascended another hill until at last he stood on the top. With a long look at the rider hurrying away in the distance, the padre turned and, without a word to me, went into the house and shut himself in his room.”

“Seor, that was the last time I saw him at the mission. Padre çnzar, who had been at Pala that day, returned to the mission in the afternoon, and I saw him at supper, but Padre Peyri did not come out of his room the rest of the day. Late that night I wandered around the church, so sad and full of fear of what I knew was coming, that I could not sleep. There was a light in the church, and I was sure the padre was in there, but, of course, I could not go in to see, and speak to him. After a little while the light disappeared, and I went back to my bed.”

“Although I now felt certain I knew what the padre was going to do, from what I had heard and seen, yet I knew nothing of the time, and did not dream it was so near. But early the next morning I knew all. I was on my way to the padre’s house, when I met Miguel coming toward me on the run. As soon as he came near he cried to me:”

“‘Antonio, el padre se ha ido (the padre is gone)! His horse is not here, nor his saddle.'”

“My heart stood still. So all that I had feared the day before was come true, and our beloved padre had left us. But how suddenly it had taken place! I thought of ‘San Diego’ and ‘the small ship Pocahontas,’ and knew all. I had not seen Miguel since my talk with him two nights before, and he knew nothing of what had occurred. I now told him everything.”

“‘Dios mio! Our, padre gone away, not to come back? Oh, why did he go? Why did not he stay with us? What shall we do without him?’ he exclaimed.”

“While Miguel was crying in this manner, I was like one stunned, and knew not what to do. Suddenly a thought came to me.”

“Miguel, let us follow him, and, if we can, persuade him to come back. I know he did not go willingly, but was driven to it by the Governor and his people; for you know he has often said that here was his home, and here he intended to stay, until his death.'”

“‘But, Antonio, what can we two do? He would not listen to us, and, besides, he must be too far ahead now to be overtaken. And the ship may have left before we get to San Diego. You did not hear when it was to sail?'”

“‘No, but we can come up with him, I am sure, before he reaches San Diego, if we waste no time. Come, I am going to tell my father, and get my horse, and be off.’ And I started on the run for my father’s house, which was not far from the church. I found him just leaving for his work, and told him, in a few words, what had happened. He was not so surprised as I thought he would be, for he was an old man, and knew more of all that was taking place in the country, than was possible for me, a mere boy.”

“‘Go, Antonio,’ he said. ‘I shall follow you;’ and he turned away into the house.”

“I waited not to see what he would do, but darted away, and, catching my horse, was off as hard as I could ride. Before I had gone many rods, I heard a horse’s gallop behind me, and, looking back, saw Miguel at full speed. I stopped to permit him to come up with me, and then, without a word, we went on together.”

“There are nearly ten leagues between San Luis Rey and San Diego, Seor; and as we were determined to reach there by noon, we said very little during the whole ride, but urged our horses to their utmost. After going a few miles, we came to the shore, and went along by the ocean, sometimes on the beach itself, sometimes on the mesa above. But swiftly as we went, the sun was still quicker, and it was nearly noon when we came in sight of San Diego. We hastened on, past houses, the presidio, and down to the edge of the water, taking no notice of the men, women and children, who gazed wonderingly after us. Out in the bay, not far from the shore, lay a ship with sails spread, ready to start with the first puff of wind, which began faintly to blow as we reached the water. On the deck there were many people, passengers and sailors, and among them we saw our padre, a little apart from the others, and gazing toward the land he was leaving. By his side stood Don Manuel, who had been at the mission the day before, and with them were two of the mission Indians. I envied them, Seor, and wished I could have been there also, for my heart was breaking at the thought of losing my beloved padre. At first he did not notice us, but when, with a cry, we called to him, he started as he saw us standing on the beach, with our arms held out to him. Just at that instant, we heard a distant sound of horses coming hard and fast over the ground toward us. Looking around, we saw a sight that made us thrill: a great throng of men, each one urging on with whip and spur the horse he was riding. We did not at once know what it meant, but, in a second or two, understood. It was a band of Indians from our mission. Madly they dashed down to the shore, sprang from their horses, and fell on their knees – some on the beach, some half in the water, so great was the crowd – imploring, with heartbreaking cries, our padre to have pity on them and not leave them. There were nearly five hundred men, and their lamentations were terrible to hear.”

“But the sails had filled with the freshening breeze, and the ship was fast getting under way. The padre gazed at us all, long and sorrowfully, and, with arms raised up to Heaven, in a faltering voice, which we could scarcely hear from the increasing distance, called down the blessing of God on us. With groans and cries we watched the ship sail away, and as it faded into the distance, we saw our beloved padre kneeling on the deck in prayer.”

“Seor, there is no more to tell. We waited there on the beach until the ship had disappeared; then slowly, one by one, found each our horse, and set out for the mission. All night we rode, not caring how or when we should get there. When we reached the mission, we found the women and children gathered together, waiting for us. As soon as they saw us they burst out weeping and lamenting, for, by our manner, they knew our padre was gone. Silently we turned loose our horses, and went back to our old life and work, but with sorrow in our hearts. That is all, Seor.”

I had listened to the old man with great and constantly increasing interest, and long before he had finished, found myself with brush held idly in my hand. He had told his story with simple earnestness, crossed, now and then, with deep emotion, as his love for the Franciscan father, and sorrow at his loss, came to the surface. After an interval of silence, I asked him if he had ever heard of the padre since that day.

“Only two or three times,” he answered. “A few months afterward we had news of him from Mexico; he was then about to return to Spain. Two years after we heard he was at his old home and, a little later, that he was gone to Rome. Some one told us he lived there till his death, but we never knew positively.”

Padre Peyri is one of the most picturesque figures in California’s mission history: the zeal he showed in calling his mission into existence; the intensity of enthusiasm with which he labored for it; his long career of usefulness; the love the neophytes had for him; his agony at the ruthless destruction of the missions – too great for him to endure, old and feeble as he then was growing; and his dramatic departure, hastening away under cover of the night, to escape the importunities of his devoted flock: all this had been pictured with keen clearness in the old Indian’s simple tale.

I thanked him for his story as he rose to go. Wishing me “adios” with grave politeness, he walked slowly away, and left me to dream of the old mission times, full of color and romance, which have given so much to the present day, until the sun sinking behind the hills in the west recalled me to myself and my surroundings.

I fear I shall never again see Pala; but I shall not forget its charm and beauty, the quaint old campanario and near-by buildings, and, above all, Antonio, the Indian, and his tale of mission life in the old days.

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