Don Diego of the South

A poem by Francis Bret Harte

Good! said the Padre, believe me still,
“Don Giovanni,” or what you will,
The type’s eternal! We knew him here
As Don Diego del Sud. I fear
The story’s no new one! Will you hear?

One of those spirits you can’t tell why
God has permitted. Therein I
Have the advantage, for I hold
That wolves are sent to the purest fold,
And we’d save the wolf if we’d get the lamb.
You’re no believer? Good! I am.

Well, for some purpose, I grant you dim,
The Don loved women, and they loved him.
Each thought herself his last love! Worst,
Many believed that they were his first!
And, such are these creatures since the Fall,
The very doubt had a charm for all!

You laugh! You are young, but I indeed
I have no patience . . . To proceed:
You saw, as you passed through the upper town,
The Eucinal where the road goes down
To San Felipe! There one morn
They found Diego, his mantle torn,
And as many holes through his doublet’s band
As there were wronged husbands you understand!

“Dying,” so said the gossips. “Dead”
Was what the friars who found him said.
May be. Quien sabe? Who else should know?
It was a hundred years ago.
There was a funeral. Small indeed
Private. What would you? To proceed:

Scarcely the year had flown. One night
The Commandante awoke in fright,
Hearing below his casement’s bar
The well-known twang of the Don’s guitar;
And rushed to the window, just to see
His wife a-swoon on the balcony.

One week later, Don Juan Ramirez
Found his own daughter, the Dona Inez,
Pale as a ghost, leaning out to hear
The song of that phantom cavalier.
Even Alcalde Pedro Blas
Saw, it was said, through his niece’s glass,
The shade of Diego twice repass.

What these gentlemen each confessed
Heaven and the Church only knows. At best
The case was a bad one. How to deal
With Sin as a Ghost, they couldn’t but feel
Was an awful thing. Till a certain Fray
Humbly offered to show the way.

And the way was this. Did I say before
That the Fray was a stranger? No, Señor?
Strange! very strange! I should have said
That the very week that the Don lay dead
He came among us. Bread he broke
Silent, nor ever to one he spoke.
So he had vowed it! Below his brows
His face was hidden. There are such vows!

Strange! are they not? You do not use
Snuff? A bad habit!

Well, the views
Of the Fray were these: that the penance done
By the caballeros was right; but one
Was due from the cause, and that, in brief,
Was Dona Dolores Gomez, chief,
And Inez, Sanchicha, Concepcion,
And Carmen, well, half the girls in town
On his tablets the Friar had written down.

These were to come on a certain day
And ask at the hands of the pious Fray
For absolution. That done, small fear
But the shade of Diego would disappear.

They came; each knelt in her turn and place
To the pious Fray with his hidden face
And voiceless lips, and each again
Took back her soul freed from spot or stain,
Till the Dona Inez, with eyes downcast
And a tear on their fringes, knelt her last.

And then perhaps that her voice was low
From fear or from shame the monks said so
But the Fray leaned forward, when, presto! all
Were thrilled by a scream, and saw her fall
Fainting beside the confessional.

And so was the ghost of Diego laid
As the Fray had said. Never more his shade
Was seen at San Gabriel’s Mission. Eh!
The girl interests you? I dare say!
“Nothing,” said she, when they brought her to
“Only a faintness!” They spoke more true
Who said ’twas a stubborn soul. But then
Women are women, and men are men!

So, to return. As I said before,
Having got the wolf, by the same high law
We saved the lamb in the wolf’s own jaw,
And that’s my moral. The tale, I fear,
But poorly told. Yet it strikes me here
Is stuff for a moral. What’s your view?
You smile, Don Pancho. Ah! that’s like you!

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