The dining-room was on the opposite side of the courtyard from the kitchen, and there was a perpetual procession of small messengers going back and forth between the rooms. It was the highest ambition of each child to be allowed to fetch and carry dishes in the preparation of the meals at all times; but when by so doing they could perchance get a glimpse through the dining-room door, open on the veranda, of strangers and guests, their restless rivalry became unmanageable. Poor Margarita, between her own private anxieties and her multiplied duties of helping in the kitchen, and setting the table, restraining and overseeing her army of infant volunteers, was nearly distraught; not so distraught, however, but that she remembered and found time to seize a lighted candle in the kitchen, run and set it before the statue of Saint Francis of Paula in her bedroom, hurriedly whispering a prayer that the lace might be made whole like new. Several times before the afternoon had waned she snatched a moment to fling herself down at the statue's feet and pray her foolish little prayer over again. We think we are quite sure that it is a foolish little prayer, when people pray to have torn lace made whole. But it would be hard to show the odds between asking that, and asking that it may rain, or that the sick may get well. As the grand old Russian says, what men usually ask for, when they pray to God, is, that two and two may not make four. All the same he is to be pitied who prays not. It was only the thought of that candle at Saint Francis's feet, which enabled Margarita to struggle through this anxious and unhappy afternoon and evening.
At last supper was ready,-- a great dish of spiced beef and cabbage in the centre of the table; a tureen of thick soup, with force-meat balls and red peppers in it; two red earthen platters heaped, one with the boiled rice and onions, the other with the delicious frijoles (beans) so dear to all Mexican hearts; cut-glass dishes filled with hot stewed pears, or preserved quinces, or grape jelly; plates of frosted cakes of various sorts; and a steaming silver teakettle, from which went up an aroma of tea such as had never been bought or sold in all California, the Senora's one extravagance and passion.
"Where is Ramona?" asked the Senora, surprised and displeased, as she entered the dining-room, "Margarita, go tell the Senorita that we are waiting for her."
Margarita started tremblingly, with flushed face, towards the door. What would happen now! "O Saint Francis," she inwardly prayed, "help us this once!"
"Stay," said Felipe. "Do not call Senorita Ramona." Then, turning to his mother, "Ramona cannot come. She is not in the house. She has a duty to perform for to-morrow," he said; and he looked meaningly at his mother, adding, "we will not wait for her."
Much bewildered, the Senora took her seat at the head of the table in a mechanical way, and began, "But --" Felipe, seeing that questions were to follow, interrupted her: "I have just spoken with her. It is impossible for her to come;" and turning to Father Salvierderra, he at once engaged him in conversation, and left the baffled Senora to bear her unsatisfied curiosity as best she could.
Margarita looked at Felipe with an expression of profound gratitude, which he did not observe, and would not in the least have understood; for Ramona had not confided to him any details of the disaster. Seeing him under her window, she had called cautiously to him, and said: "Dear Felipe, do you think you can save me from having to come to supper? A dreadful accident has happened to the altar-cloth, and I must mend it and wash it, and there is barely time before dark. Don't let them call me; I shall be down at the brook, and they will not find me, and your mother will be displeased."
This wise precaution of Ramona's was the salvation of everything, so far as the altar-cloth was concerned. The rents had proved far less serious than she had feared; the daylight held out till the last of them was skilfully mended; and just as the red beams of the sinking sun came streaming through the willow-trees at the foot of the garden, Ramona, darting down the garden, had reached the brook, and kneeling on the grass, had dipped the linen into the water.
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