Lailah and the Zepeda Boys, Part One

Prologue – Events Prior to 1888

After returning from San Gabriel, Tobias and Sarah lived with his parents in the rancho adobe until they built nearer to the beach road a two-story bungalow with a few aspirational features of a Victorian. Their first son, John, was born mid-December, 1871. Just before Charles’ birth in 1872, they moved into their new home where their third son, Danny came into their contented and prosperous world in the winter of 1873.

Chun Loie – called Miss Louie by family, friends, and neighbors – stayed in the rancho adobe with Mateo and his wife until she had a small adobe cottage built across from the beach road bungalow. After two years of living at the rancho, she spoke grammatically perfect English and a practical level of Spanish. Before reaching the age of eighteen she read and comprehended English texts at a college level, and by the age of twenty she could read German and French language scientific journals. Though the majority of her reading material consisted of medical texts and journals, she also enjoyed fine literature. With her book learned knowledge and her innate intelligence she quickly became the highly valued caretaker of the Rancho’s animals. Though she practiced without a license or certification or any official recognition of her veterinary skills, many of the neighboring ranches and farms depended upon her. Many of the locals also favored her for human medical emergencies and especially for midwifery.

Mateo as he grew into a man worked alongside of Tobias. From the day Tobias and Sarah returned to Santa Barbara, Mateo helped convert the rancho into a successful dairy and to plant walnut groves and fruit orchards. While Tobias, hired hands, and he did the manual labor, Sarah managed the rancho’s business affairs so profitably, people said their trees didn’t produce fruit and nuts; they blossomed with banknotes. By 1888 Mateo was the de facto foreman.

Cherub sired three litters of pure mastiffs. Of these puppies, Mateo and his wife, adopted one and named it Tiburcio; the Tobias and Sarah family adopted one and named it Claudius, and Miss Louie kept one which she named Hippocrates – but everyone else called him Hippo. Their neighbors declared Rancho Zepeda the best guarded property in all of California.

Every so often as the three brothers grew up, they would hear the story of their mother’s and father’s engagement and marriage, and the part a certain Friar Raphael played in it. Tobias’ tales of the murderous Deputy Ash became their favorite bedtime ghost stories. After a few years, in their minds, all the strange San Gabriel occurrences became mythological – a sad fate for a fantastic but true history.

 

 

Part One, Scene One, September 9th, 1888

California Admissions Day

 

As soon as Sarah disappeared into the kitchen to initiate the day’s celebration preparations, Tobit quietly motioned to his sons to leave the dining room table and follow him. He led John, Charles, and Danny to the stables. There he told each boy which horse to saddle.

“Danny, you take Aztec Night.”

Charles and John exchanged a look and then Charles asked, “Father, has my anatomy grown too gross to be a jockey for the colt?”

“You have sprouted up a mite. You must’ve grown a head taller in just a year.”

John kept his eyes focused on adjusting the saddle cinch and his expression betrayed no sign of his intended humor.  “Perhaps, Charles is exhibiting a rare excessive growth disease. Perhaps, Miss Louie could write a research article on him. She might submit it to the Scientific American journal.”

“Or he could tour the country with P. T. Barnum.” After finishing the cinching of his riding saddle Danny turned to the others. “Won’t Mother be proud to see his name on the posters – Charles the Gigantic Sawbones.”

“Your mother won’t spare a word of praise outside of church until you boys have college degrees to put on the parlor wall.” Tobias froze his face as if he’d said something he wanted to take back. Then he turned to his youngest son. “You too, Danny-boy. You just need to put a tad more effort in your studies and you’ll do fine.”

But Danny hadn’t felt slighted. His attention returned to readying the colt, his expression a faintly wistful smile. Tobias led his saddled horse to the stable door, and paused there to survey the dirt driveway between the stable and the bungalow’s kitchen door. He looked back at his sons and whispered, “We’ll walk them to the beach road, then we’ll mount them…”

“And the Zepeda Gang will escape again,” whispered Danny to his brothers’ amusement.

Maybe Sarah didn’t see them in time or maybe she did and thought to give them an hour of freedom before putting them all to work on her long planned for beach party celebrating California’s Admission Day. This fete would be her most important hosting of the past sixteen years many of which she’d spent befriending Santa Barbara’s new social elite. Looking outside the open doorway, she stood inside the kitchen with her arms folded across her chest. Claudius, lying on the backdoor porch, looked over to her.

“Oh, you go along, too.”

Claudius happily trotted after the file of four walker-led horses until he reached Miss Louie’s cottage. There he detoured, as had John: the dog to invite his half-brother, Hippo, to come along; and John to say good-morning to Miss Louie who he’d spied sitting on her veranda and reading.

“Good morning, John. Are you menfolk decamping to the beach for a secret morning ride?”

“I’m fairly certain Mother witnessed Father’s attempt at subterfuge. Is that the new Scientific American Journal?”

“Yes, it is. I was just reading an article about Louis Pasteur your brother might be interested in.”

“I’ll tell him. Anything for me?”

“There are no articles concerning physics or mathematics, but a Harvard astronomer has written something you might enjoy.”

“Maybe you can tell me about it at the celebration. I have a feeling that will be our first opportunity to rest from Mother’s supervision.”

“Enjoy your ride.”

With one foot in the stirrup, John swung onto the saddle. From on top of the fractious horse, he tipped his hat at Miss Louie and then urged the horse into a gallop. The two mastiffs ran after him.

On the beach road, Tobias and his three sons rode abreast. John told Charles about the Louis Pasteur article. Charles nodded his head slightly.

The road to the beach followed a seasonal creek whose waters had eons ago worn a narrow way between mesas that each ended in sea facing cliffs. About a half mile before emptying in the Pacific, the creek flowed into an estero, a brackish oasis on the mostly barren coastline.

As they rode along the tule lined estero, Tobias said, “Now, Danny-boy, when we’re on the beach, I don’t want you riding Aztec Night hard at all; just enough to exercise him. The Colonel might be bringing his new colt to the celebration today and there just might be a challenge he’d be foolish enough to make.”

“Will do, Father.”

They halted at the inland edge of the beach sands. On this late summer day only small waves, ankle-biters, surged onto the wet sand. About sixty yards offshore a wooden raft floated serenely on scarcely visible Pacific swells. Two thick ropes ran from stakes on the beach out to the raft. Tobias dismounted and inspected the ropes’ fastening on the stakes.”

“They ought to hold well enough,” he announced to his sons. “Unless a sundowner blows in.”

“If we do get an early sundowner wind,” said Charles, “we’ll be much more concerned about the tents blowing away.”

“Unless there’s some bathers still on the raft,” said John.

“With any kind of good luck, they’ll be blown onto Santa Cruz. The Captain and me can go fetch them back tomorrow.” Danny said this as he urged Aztec Night to wade in the shallow seawater.

“Father, will we be allowed to swim this afternoon?” asked Charles.

“Your mother and I are counting on you boys safeguarding the little ones; make sure they don’t wade out too far.”

“Sir, you may rest assured the Zepeda boys will do their duty.” Charles brought his horse alongside John’s. The two horses, side by side, stood ready to race over the wet sand along the water’s edge. The oldest son looked over at his middle brother, their eyes met, and by some unspoken, unexpressed signal, each rider slapped his horse once. Neck and neck, they raced along the beach. Tobias watched them so intently he didn’t notice an approaching rider on the beach road, but Danny did.

“Father, look yonder. Mother has arrived with a sincere intention of fetching us back for some hard labor.”

Tobias looked to Sarah and then noticed the wagons coming along behind her.

“I think, son, it’s more the case that she has brought the work to us.”

 

Part One, Scene Two, September 9th, 1888

California Admissions Day

 

Tobias and his sons worked alongside the day laborers hired to erect – on the head-high bluff overlooking the beach – a dining tent. Other laborers dug a beach fire pit into which they dumped short logs. Supervising every detail of the fete’s setup, was just one very busy overseer, Sarah. By eleven, nearly every necessity for the feeding and entertaining of the invited guests was in place. They broke for an early and light lunch brought from the rancho’s kitchens to the beach in the Zepeda’s buggy driven by Miss Louie who was accompanied by Tobit, nowadays more often called “Abuelito” by the boys and the farm hands.

The break for lunch lasted no more than twenty minutes.

“We have just less than an hour to finish up,” said Sarah to the backs of her menfolk seated on the bluff with their legs dangling over the sandstone escarpment.

“There isn’t much left to be done, Mother.” John stood up as he said this. The others also stood.

“No, there isn’t much left. You boys have done a great job.”

“Me too, Sarah?”

“Yes, you too.” She took Tobias’ hands in hers, looked into his eyes, and then suddenly hugged him. “Especially you, dear.”

“The tide’s coming in, Mother,” said John. “It appears that the workmen have set the bathing tents too near the water’s edge. Should we move them back?”

“Not too far from the water’s edge, I don’t want certain people accusing me of promoting immodesty.”

The boys grinned at one another while Tobias did his best to look non-committal.

“Such as the dour old biddies of those other churches,” said Danny softly, but Sarah had heard him and then reproved him with a mildly stern look which on the scale of her stern looks others suffered ranked near the bottom.

“As far as I know, Mother,” said John, “we three will be the only near adult bathers. None of the invited mothers and fathers will permit their older daughters to wear bathing costumes. All the other bathers will be children except for maybe a couple of our male gender friends.”

“Yes, however, there will be two guests I have never met: a lady and her daughter, houseguests of the Guilford’s. I believe the woman to be an opera singer by the name of Rebecca Ruban.”

“Are opera singers known for their immodest behavior?” asked Charles.

“Or more importantly, can they even swim?” asked Danny.

“I don’t know. She might be a bit worldly. Colonel Guilford did refer to her as a world-famous soprano.”

Charles turned to John. “Would you suppose they’ve heard of her in the upside-down world of the antipodes?”

“Perhaps, but certainly not the darkest regions of Borneo,” John replied.

“Then, factually, she’s only partially world-famous,” said Danny using his father’s favorite descriptive word.

“Enough,” said Sarah, “just mind your manners and stifle your witty tongues. Act like the gentlemen I know you boys to be, and you’ll all prove me proud.”

“How old is Mrs. Ruban’s daughter?” asked Danny.

“She’s about your age, I believe. Now, let us finish up down here and get ready to make a really good impression on our guests.”

 

Part One, Scene Three, September 9th, 1888

California Admissions Day, The Beach Party

 

Except for Mrs. Ruban and her daughter, the guests had arrived on time and were ready and maybe eager to sit at the makeshift dining tables or on the spread blankets on the beach sand and begin their feast; their appetites heighten to starvation levels by the smell of the roasted calf on the spit and the sight of the buckets of lobsters and crabs ready to be plunged into the pots of boiling water. Some of the men and boys cast impatient glances up the road. If any of the women were impatient, they hid it in whispers and knowing nods of their heads.

Colonel Guilford and Mrs. Guilford betrayed no impatience as they conversed with Tobias and Sarah. They had been talking about local affairs – the fact of a railroad line from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara, but not one from San Francisco; the plans for the town’s first hospital – until the Colonel couldn’t help but to express what was really on his mind.

“Tobias, I’ve been hearing rumors about your new colt.”

“He’s showing a lot of promise, I guarantee you that for a fact.”

“And I’d be right in thinking you’re more than willing to race him against my Sky Blazer?”

“You would not be counterfactual in thinking that. I had been kind of hoping to try them today on the wet sand.”

“No, not today, but hopefully tomorrow, if you have the time. And let’s race them on my training oval. The surface is more even. Tell me: who’ll be your jockey?”

“Danny.”

“Not Charles? Well, I guess your middle boy has grown some. Now, for my Sky Blazer, there’s this young Irish lad…”

The unrestrained excited murmur of the crowd assembled near to the dining tent alerted the men to the arrival of the eagerly awaited last two guests. Along the estero could be seen the Colonel’s carriage and two matching horses. The passengers couldn’t be seen yet.

“Is that your new barouche, Colonel?”

“That it is. It’s an exact copy of Ol’ Abe’s barouche.”

“It’s a handsome carriage, alright. I hope Sarah doesn’t…” But the Colonel had turned away and was hurrying toward the newly arrived guests.

The barouche halted in front of the expectant crowd. The driver, a boy sized ranch hand, one unaccustomed to the role of coachman, looked at the approaching Colonel Guilford who ignored his inquiring stare as he came up to the barouche and then swung open its half door. He extended his hand to help out the lady, Rebecca Ruban. She smiled down at the Colonel and then in the direction of the upturned faces. The crowd for a moment became quiet for she was, if not the most beautiful woman ever seen in the county, certainly the most elegantly dressed. Though many of the women would later express their opinion as to whether Mrs. Ruban’s necklace and bracelet contained real rubies and emeralds. The Zepeda boys, along with their friends, of course, also witnessed this grand entrance.

“Friends and neighbors, I present to you the world-acclaimed soprano, Rebecca Ruban.”

Escorted by the Colonel and his wife, she took several steps between the parting crowd and then halted. She turned her head to look at her daughter still in the carriage and with her face turned down, her eyes fast on an open book in her hands.

“Clara, do come along, dear.”

Danny, along with his brothers, had moved closer to the carriage, and stood by the open door looking at the girl. Clara looked up from her book and shyly smiled back at him. He reached out his hand to help her down as he said, “Welcome to Zepeda Beach.”

She placed her gloved hand in his and climbed down. For a moment she looked directly at Danny, but looked away as she softly said, “Thank you.”

Danny had only briefly looked into her sky-blue eyes but always remembered the moment, and from then on, thought of her eyes as having a pleading quality to them. For many observers, Clara’s most striking feature was the fineness of her unblemished facial features. Clara was clearly destined to be as beautiful as her mother, though her nearly always stressed with an anxious furtiveness face belied that potential. The blond haired, tall but thin fifteen-year-old hurried to assume her place in her mother’s wake.

Charles had watched his brother playing the gentleman. As soon as Clara had vacated the carriage leaving her book on the seat, he reached for the book and read the title, Tales from Shakespeare for Young Readers. He opened it to the middle pages and noticed that it did not contain playscripts but paraphrases of the plays using early reader vocabulary and syntax. He put the book back and then turned to the carriage driver. “Hey, driver, what’s it like sitting so high in this fine conveyance?”

“It’s nothing special to me. I’m a jockey by trade. The Colonel wanted to compare me against a certain lad by the name of Charles.”

“That’s me. But you’ll be racing against my brother, Danny. He’s over there escorting that fair-haired lass to the dining table.”

The jockey looked in the direction Charles had indicated and then nodded his head. Danny had walked by Clara’s side to the tented area, neither of them volunteering conversation. At the tent, Clara’s mother glanced briefly at the two, and though her glance had been expressionless, Danny felt it best to walk away.

Clara dined with the adults, seated in the shadow of her mother. Between timid bites of her food, she monosyllabically answered the few polite and general questions from the grownups. After dinner, Sarah came over and asked Clara if she’d like to be introduced to the young people of her age. Clara looked to her mother for an answer.

“Yes, you may go. But keep your hat on and don’t stay too long in the sun. And take care not to get your shoes wet. And please do not go wading in the water, that dress is from Paris.”

Sarah led the girl across the sand to the bathing tents where most of the young people had gathered. She surveyed the crowd of young people and children. Her three sons and a few of their friends had changed into bathing suits. John and Miss Louie were sitting on a sandstone boulder involved in an earnest discussion of which Sarah knew that she nor Clara would not understand a word. Charles, knee deep in water, had a line of boys and girls waiting their turn to be picked up by their hands and spun around with their little feet skimming the water. Tobit was being guided by two children in a wade along the shore. Danny, who had been conversing with some friends by the water’s edge, saw his mother and Clara approach and so walked over to them.

“Hello, again,” he called out as he approached, “Would you like to meet some of my friends?”

Clara made no response, her emotions of doubt and worry obvious. Danny kept smiling at her and then said, “Well, maybe later. They’re a swell bunch of boys and girls, but we can stand here and watch the little ones playing in the water.”

“They seem to be having lots of fun.” Hearing Clara speak in a full sentence convinced Sarah she was leaving the girl in good hands. She returned to the dining tent to resume her hostess duties.

“Yeah, the little tykes love splashing about in the shallow water, but they should be learning to swim at that age. We did, that is, my brothers and me. Can you swim?”

Clara shook her head no.

“I guess you need to have a beach handy. We call this our beach because we own the land behind it. It used to be part of big rancho but now we mostly have dairy cows.”

“Are you a cowboy, too?”

“No, not really. I mean, I ride horses, but working a ranch is different. Hey, what did you mean by saying, ‘…a cowboy, too’?”

“Oh, well, it’s just that you’re wearing a bathing costume because you’re an ocean bather, so I thought maybe when you’re with your cows you would wear a cowboy costume and be a cowboy also.”

“A cowboy costume? That’s a funny way of putting it. But you’re right, we dress different for each job we do. So, yeah, I guess we wear different costumes.”

“My mother wears many different costumes.”

“I reckon she would, being a singer in operas on stage and everything. Do you get to see her perform much?”

“Yes, nearly every performance. We travel everywhere together.”

“All the time?”

Clara nodded her head yes. Danny looked away, his eyes focused on the ocean horizon and then turned back to her, his face not smiling but relaxed and set with a sincerity that most girls and women found endearing.

“I’d love to travel, to go to sea and visit foreign lands. But I think I’d miss my friends and family if I was always far away.”

“Have you lived here all your life?”

“Yep, I was born in the house up the road about a mile, and I’ve been here all my life. But I’ve often sailed out to the islands.”

“Those islands out there?” She pointed to the two islands on the horizon.

“That’s San Miguel and Santa Cruz, and I’ve fished and gathered abalone out there plenty of times.”

“Is it as beautiful on those islands as it is here in Santa Barbara?”

“I never thought about it like that, but it must be to most people. I wouldn’t know any different, ‘cause this has always been my home. I guess I’ve already said that.” Danny had only been glancing sideways at Clara, but now looking directly at her face he noticed her eyes were steadily focused on him. He picked up a stone and skipped it over the water, and then said, “You must have seen an awful lot of the world; all the big cities of Europe and back east.”

“Yes, but we nearly always stay in hotels. Mother goes to parties and social events, but I’m not often invited. When Mason goes with her, I get lonely.”

“That’s a mite peculiar when you think about it. Big cities are chock full of people – so I’ve been told – and one would suppose that being in a big city you’d have lots of company, you wouldn’t be like a hermit living out in the tules.”

“Ahoy, Danny!” This shout by a teenage boy originated from near to the bathing tents where most of the young people had congregated. All their faces were turned to Danny and Clara. “How about that race you promised?”

“I haven’t forgotten! Be right there!” After shouting this, Danny said to Clara, “Come on, you can watch us race one-on-one in the water. Matthew’s a good swimmer, pretty near as fast as my brothers.”

Having kept an eye on Clara, Sarah now saw that Danny would leave the girl unaccompanied. Sarah excused herself and walked to the tents where she stood by Clara’s side. Joining her were John and Miss Louie who Danny asked to be the race’s starter. The two boys waded into the water until each stood waist high and then dove into the cold water. Stroking the water slowly, they swam along the ropes leading to the raft.

Noticing Clara’s intense concentration on the swimmers, Sarah explained, “They’re not racing yet – just warming up. After they arrive at the raft, they will climb aboard and wait for Miss Louie’s signal then they’ll dive into the water and race to the shore.”

“Mother, are we permitted to place bets?” asked Charles. “I’d like to wager my little brother wins. Of course, I shall require odds. John, are you game?”

“Should I bother to ask what exactly are your proposed odds?”

“You put up a dollar and I’ll put up a dime.”

“Not exactly a strong vote of confidence in your own kin,” said Miss Louie.

The two boys stood poised on the raft, ready to dive off. Miss Louie raised her arms overhead and then quickly brought them down. Each boy disappeared in matching splashes of water. The young people and the three adults cheered and yelled encouragement. Sarah’s concentration on the race stopped when she’d heard a strange little voice next to her loudly cheering for Danny. Clara, tall for a fifteen-year-old, cheered with a much younger sounding voice – as if she were deliberately imitating a nine-year-old. She shrieked, “Danny!” while clapping her hands intermittently and sometimes hopping up and down. Sarah only stopped regarding Clara when the boys, Danny only a little ahead, reached waist deep water and struggled to push themselves through the water, moving faster as the water became shallower. On the wet sand where Miss Louie waited with her arms outstretched, Danny slapped her right hand just two seconds before Matthew did the same.

“Hoo-ray, Hoo-rah! You’ve won! You’re my hero!” Clara rushed to him and to the surprise of everyone hugged him tightly and then snuggled her face against the wet cloth of his bathing suit. Danny’s expression betrayed his confusion.

“Well done, indeed, Danny-boy,” said Charles. “You’ve won the girl. Though, I didn’t know she was to be the prize.”

Up by the dining tent, the adults alerted by the shouting and cheering had watched the race. Mrs. Ruban had also, but with little interest in its outcome, until Clara hugged Danny. She moved as quickly as she could across the sand. Upon reaching the water’s edge, she with both hands seized her daughter’s shoulders.

“What are you doing? Hugging that boy like some kind of harlot. And look at yourself! You’ve soaked the front of your dress. It’s ruined. Did you really intend on embarrassing me? Was that your little plan?”

Whatever spark of excitement had burned in Clara immediately disappeared. She hung her head low, eyes to the ground between her feet, and mumbled, “No, Madame.”

Danny opened his mouth, about to say something, but upon seeing his mother shake her head shut his mouth and simply watched as Mrs. Ruban glowered at Clara.

Still holding onto Clara’s shoulders Mrs. Ruban turned to Miss Louie. “You there, China girl, go fetch us a blanket.”

“Miss Louie is not a servant!” John’s angry outburst softened into a merely firm voice. “So kindly do not order her about.”

“I’ll get her a blanket,” said Sarah. She went into a bathing tent and brought out a wool blanket which Mrs. Ruban took from her with a curt, “Thank you.”

After placing the blanket around the girl’s shoulders, Mrs. Ruban led her by one hand, sometimes pulling her, across the sand. She went up to Colonel Guilford and said a few words after which he walked her to the barouche and helped her and Clara climb in.

On the beach no one said a word until Charles broke the silence. “Man alive! I shudder to think what that woman would’ve done if the poor girl had fallen in and become completely soaked.”

“Mother,” said Danny, “do you think she’ll be alright?”

“Oh, I’m sure she won’t catch her death of a cold.”

“No, I mean… Clara didn’t do anything bad and yet her mother was really angry. Do you think she plans on maybe punishing Clara even more?”

“I don’t know, Danny. We can only hope and pray we’ve already witnessed the worst of that woman’s temper.”

 

Part One, Scene Four, September 10th, 1888

 

The next day, after doing morning chores, Tobias and his sons hitched two horses to a buckboard and tethered Aztec Night to the wagon’s rear. Colonel Guilford’s ranch, about an hour away at a leisurely pace, occupied much of the flatlands a little north of Santa Barbara. Alerted by a ranch hand of their approach on the dusty Camino Real, the Colonel came out to greet them and lead them to his newly constructed training oval. Tobias saddled Aztec Night while the Irish jockey rode the Colonel’s colt from the barn. Danny climbed onto the saddled Aztec Night. From up there he looked toward the Guilford’s large Victorian house, but didn’t see Clara or her mother on the path to the track. He stopped looking for them when he began to guide Aztec Night to the starting line. With the horses roughly even, the Irish jockey and Danny waited for the flag to drop. When it did, they both kicked their horses into explosive gallops.

Danny and Aztec Night lost the race by a length. Afterwards, the two riders and the handful of observers gathered in the shade of the garden oaks on the side of the mansion. A housemaid brought them refreshments. Danny expected Clara and her mother to join them, but only Mrs. Guilford came out to socialize. The Colonel admitted that maybe his colt had an advantage in that a lighter saddle had been used. He explained how a new system of handicapping race horses was being used that made each race purely a contest of horse and jockey skill. Danny silently considered this. Tobias hadn’t said anything but, “You did your best, son. The Colonel’s colt is just a faster horse.” Still, Danny felt like he’d disappointed his father.

Just before the Zepeda men departed, the Colonel and Mrs. Guilford said they looked forward to seeing them at the Lobero theater for Rebecca Ruban’s one-night only performance of opera arias. The two Rubans were to travel to Los Angeles tomorrow. As the wagon moved down the dirt driveway, Danny looked back at the big house. He thought that maybe a face in an upstairs window belonged to Clara.

 

Part One, Scene Five, September 10th, 1988

 

That evening, to accommodate the journey into town and to Santa Barbara’s one theater, Tobias and Sarah and their three sons had an early supper, joined as always by Miss Louie.

“Mother, Miss Louie should be coming with us,” John said this and immediately his father, Danny, and even Charles, found the food on their plates the most interesting thing to consider.

“John, please,” said Miss Louie. “It would not be appropriate.”

“Why not?” he asked Miss Louie, and then turned to his mother. “Because it’s more appropriate to acquiesce to the town’s prejudice?”

“John,” said Tobias, “let’s be a mite more respectful in how you address your mother.”

Sarah put her hand on her husband’s hand. “His question is legitimate,” and then to her son, “John, not only do we all depend on this community, such as it exists, warts and all, for our livelihood, but we must also consider Miss Louie’s well-being. Bringing her with us might bring out mean feelings in some of the townspeople. She would suffer more than she’d benefit from a night’s entertainment.”

“Your mother is right, John. Trust me, my situation here, with your family, is more comfortable than I could have ever dreamed. I would not want to diminish that, however worthy the cause.”

“Well… I’m just sorry we have to… acquiesce to ignorance. That’s what it is: just pure ignorance.”

 

Sarah and Tobias rode in the buggy, a two-seater, while the boys rode horses to the Lobero Theater. Still a beautiful woman, Sarah may not have worn the latest fashions, but she was easily one of the most admired women in town and carried herself well. On the other hand, though a handsome man, Tobias plainly looked uncomfortable and awkward in his new store-bought suit. Of the three boys, Charles now wore his father’s old suit, while John and Danny wore previously handed down suits. Charles had recently exceeded his older brother’s height and weight, factors which put him first in line as far as secondhand clothes were concerned. And so attired, except for the very wealthiest of their community, the Zepeda family made as good an appearance at Santa Barbara’s formal occasions as any other family.

To socialize before the show, most of the intended audience had arrived early,. With the evening air still warm in early September and the lobby being too small to hold the entire audience, the attendees comfortably milled around in front of the theater. The Zepeda family conversed with their friends, neighbors and business acquaintances until a stranger, dressed in formal attire, came up to Tobias and Sarah and said, “Good evening. You must be the Zepeda family. Rebecca instructed me to find the couple with the three handsome sons. Allow me to introduce myself, I am William Mason, Mrs. Ruban’s business manager and a baritone extraordinaire.”

“Pleased me to meet you. I’m Tobias Zepeda and this is my wife, Sarah.”

To Sarah’s barely suppressed amusement, Mr. Mason took her hand in his and bowed his head to kiss it. “Enchanté.”

As Tobias introduced each of his sons, Mr. Mason shook their hands.

“I’m so very sorry to have missed your beachside celebration. Unfortunately, certain business details demanded my attention. Rebecca Ruban, as you can well imagine, is in great demand across the country. But I wasn’t sent out here to bore you with talk of my labors. Madame Ruban thought your sons would like to see her backstage, and maybe watch her from the wings.”

A man came out of the theater and shouted, “Ten minutes, folks. Just about ten minutes before the show begins, so come on in.”

Mr. Mason led the way into the theater. Tobias and Sarah found seats while the boys followed the stoutly built man down the side aisle and to the side of the stage. They disappeared through a doorway covered with heavy black drapes allowing them entrance into the backstage area where they saw Clara standing with her attention fixated on the empty stage. At their approach she turned her face to blankly regard them.

“Hi, Clara. I don’t think you’ve met my brothers. They’re the smarter ones of the litter.”

“Call me Charles. And Danny’s being far too modest,” said Charles. “He easily can outwit the slippery barracuda, and outfox the ferocious boar.”

While Charles was speaking Clara had simply looked at him, her face as blank of expression as before.

John seemed intent on studying the row of stage lights, so Danny introduced him. “This one is John.”

John turned his head and nodded. While looking at Mr. Mason he pointed to the row of lighting fixtures along the front of the stage. “Those lamps are filled with calcium oxide, are they not?”

“I rather think it’s lime, seeing as how they’re called limelights.”

John considered this briefly and then said to his brothers and Clara, “Quicklime is actually calcium oxide. When the mixture is heated it provides an intense illumination.”

“So bright the audience can see the facial wrinkles on a baritone’s face, or a soprano, for that matter.” Mr. Mason. He rested his hand on Clara’s shoulder, moving her slightly closer to him. “But not your pretty little face, my petite darling.”

From where they stood, they could see both the seated audience and the part of the stage behind the lowered curtain. From behind them, Madam Ruban rushed past them and onto the center stage. A man dressed in formal black attire came onto the stage and sat at the grand piano. The theater gas lights were trimmed to dimness. The audience grew quiet until the drawn back curtains revealed Madam Ruban and then they clapped and cheered. The boys, seeing Clara and Mr. Mason clapping, also joined in.

Mrs. Ruban began her recital with a selection of soprano arias from various comic operas, heavily favoring Gilbert and Sullivan. During this first half of the show, Danny stood by one side of Clara with Mr. Mason on the other. After each song, Mr. Mason took his hand away from her to clap and returned it afterwards as if to ensure that Clara would not leave his side. Danny noticed that, every so often, with his free hand he pulled a flask from his coat’s inside pocket and took a quick drink.

“Clara, she’s a few numbers away from her sob song so we should prepare for our act.”

Mr. Mason then said to the boys, “I’m to sing an aria so Rebecca can rest her voice. And Clara will be joining me on stage for her very first time.”

“Are you going to sing, also?” asked Danny.

“I’m an actress, not a singer.” She turned away from Danny and faced Mr. Mason who took her hand and led her to the dressing room. On stage Madam Ruban announced that after the next aria she would take a short break and that William Mason, a talented baritone, would keep them entertained until she returned and when she did, the audience had a real treat in store for them – she’d be wearing the Yum-Yum costume made especially for the New York production of, The Mikado. The audience clapped, the majority of men doing so merely out of politeness.

“This next selection is from Herr Mozart’s opera, Le nozze di Figaro. In act two, the Countess Rosina laments her husband’s adulterous attentions to a housemaid. She sings, Porgi amor qualche ristoro – I beseech you, love, grant me some relief.”

The piano player unpacked a clarinet and was joined by a violin player – the grammar school math teacher. Softly they began playing, and then she began singing the intensely plaintive aria. The melody transfixed the boys by its beauty and by the heartbreaking emotion her voice conveyed. As she sang the last line – O mi rendi il mio Tesoro; O mi lascia almen morir – Mr. Mason and Clara came out of the dressing room and stood by the side of the boys.

The aria didn’t appear to touch Mr. Mason’s heart. He murmured, “O, give me back my loved one; or in mercy let me die. One of these days she’s going to really mean it.”

As the last note sounded the audience leapt to its feet, cheering and clapping. With her arms crossed across her chest, she bowed and walked off stage, pausing in front of the three boys.

“I am so glad you could attend. Are you enjoying the recital?”

“Very much so. Your singing is more beautiful than any voice I’ve ever heard before.” John’s level of enthusiasm caused his brothers to briefly stare at him. They turned away from their mystifying brother and to the smiling opera diva.

“I liked it, too, Mrs. Reuben,” said Danny.

Her smile vanished. “I’m not Jewish. My name is pronounced Rue-bahn. The name is French.” She abruptly turned and walked to her dressing room.”

The boys, of one mind, turned to Mr. Mason and Clara, waiting for their reaction. For a few long seconds no one spoke until Charles broke the silence. “We’re Catholic, if that’s okay.”

Mr. Mason seemed slightly bemused. “It certainly is boys. We, ourselves, attend whatever church our hosts attend. We performers simply aim to please, isn’t that so, Clara?”

She nodded her head, and then turned to Danny with the same shy smile she had when she’d first met Danny. Mr. Mason stroked her blond hair and said, “Don’t be nervous, my dear. Or rather, don’t concern yourself too much with the butterflies in your stomach – all the great performers have them just before going on stage. The audience will love you, even for doing nothing more than looking as delightfully comely as nature made you. Come, I’ll walk you to your mark.”

He took her hand and led her onto the stage. The audience clapped. He let go of her hand just before continuing on to center stage. Between them a stagehand placed a window frame.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to sing to you another aria composed by Mozart, this one from his opera, Don Giovanni. Clara Ruban will play the silent role of the young maid whose beauty has captured the heart of Don Giovanni. And as in Shakespeare’s play of eternal love, Romeo and Juliet, the young swain looks up to the window of his beloved and pleads, Deh vieni alla finestra, Ah, come to the window.”

Mr. Mason nodded at the piano player. From the first word of the song, he kept his eyes on Clara who stood there, her hands clasped together in front of her stomach, her head hung down, only raising it briefly to meet Mr. Mason’s eyes. At first her costume gown failed to make her appear to be a young suitor’s legitimate object of affection. But as Mr. Mason sang the aria so beautifully and so full of heartful longing that it became almost believable she fit the role.

Charles murmured to his brothers, “He’s a bit long in the tooth to be playing a boyish swain.”

At the aria’s end, the audience clapped noticeably less loudly than they had for Rebecca Ruban. None of the boisterous males hoorayed. While the audience clapped, Clara bowed and left the stage to stand in front of Danny. She leaned her head forward, putting her mouth close to his ear. He could feel her lips against his ear as she whispered, “How did you like my performance?”

Danny hesitated before saying, “You were very good. I’d be too nervous to stand up there in front of all those people. You did great.”

She took his hand in hers. “Thank you.”

After Mr. Mason finished his third bow, a man shouted, “Oh, Susanna!” Mr. Mason straightened up with a forced smile on his face.

“I’m terribly sorry, but I don’t know that particular song.”

A murmuring broke out among the audience, so Mr. Mason hurried to suggest, “How about, Marching Through Georgia?”

A few men in the audience booed. The piano player sensing the need to help rose from the piano bench and walked over to the baritone singer. “I know a song that ought to calm them down. Do you know Polly Wolly Doodle?

Mr. Mason’s forced smile disappeared as he hissed, “Polly? Wolly? Doodle?”

“It’s quite simple. Come over to the piano. I’ve the sheet music for it.”

Maybe if the audience hadn’t sung along, they might have detected the irritation in the baritone’s voice as he sight read the words and melody. But nearly everyone else enjoyed themselves greatly and at the song’s finish clapped and cheered as Mr. Mason curtly bowed and walked offstage. As he passed the boys, they heard him mutter, “Bumpkins, the lot of them.” And then loudly, “Come on along, Clara. I require your calming presence.”

Mr. Mason quickly walked to the dressing room, dragging along Clara by the hand. She looked back at Danny who could see even in the dim light, a pleading in her blue eyes and in the set of her mouth. The boys would not see her again until two years later, though Danny would always remember the touch of her lips against his ear and it was Danny whose life was to be the most changed by her reappearance.

Click here to continue reading; Part Two