Death Comes for the Archbishop By Willa Cather Summary and Analysis Book 2: Chapter 2

Summary

Father Vaillant and Father Latour are on the third day out toward Mora. Rain and cold make the journey difficult, and they hope to find shelter for the night before going on to Mora, where they will help refugees from an Indian massacre.

They find a house that is in poorly kept condition. They ask to spend the night, and the owner of the house@ — a repulsive and evil appearing American man@ — consents. His Mexican wife seems half-witted, but before she follows her husband to the stable, she pantomimes that the priests will be murdered if they stay. The priests have to demand their mules at gunpoint, but they travel on to reach Mora by midnight.

The following morning, a boy reports that a crazy woman in the town stable wishes to see the two priests with the white mules. It is Magdalena, the wife of the evil American Buck Scales. She has run away to tell her story to the two priests. Latour sends for a notary and requests that the townswomen help Magdalena. Cleaned and refreshed, she recounts how she married Scales six years before. He has murdered four travelers and the three children she has born him. After he killed their first child, she ran home to her parents, but he threatened to harm them and she returned, too afraid to leave him. She wants only to save her soul and die. A friend of the notary confirms that she is Magdalena Valdez.

The authorities find Buck Scales on his way to retrieve his wife, and jail him at Mora. Magdalena fears to stay near him, and Latour shares her fear. He and the notary stand armed guard over her all night. Kit Carson comes and offers her refuge as an old friend of her family's. Latour is surprised to find that the legendary Carson is of slight build, but admires his humanity in wishing to take care of Magdalena.

On the way back to Taos, Carson tells Latour how he feels about becoming a Catholic. When he was sick in California, the priests took care of him. Although he was brought up to see priests as "rascals" and nuns as "bad women," Carson sees there is something in Catholicism after all. Carson cannot read or write, but he knows more geography than anyone. He takes Magdalena home to be taken care of by his wife. Investigators find the bodies of the people murdered by Buck Scales, who is hanged.

When Latour returns from a trip to St. Louis, he brings five Sisters of Loretto to found a girls' school. Magdalena works for them, and regains her beauty and serenity.

Analysis

The Catholic themes of Death Comes for the Archbishop are no more prevalent than in this chapter. The Catholic Church believes that humanity is fallen from God's grace, as represented by Buck Scales, a degenerate killer of babies and travelers. Magdalena has been defiled by her association with Scales, but, like her New Testament namesake, Mary Magdalene, she has found redemption by abandoning her past and adopting a life of devotion with the Sisters of Loretto. As Cather writes: "After the blight of her horrible youth was over, she seemed to bloom again in the household of God."

Cather establishes a foreboding mood as the priests approach the house of Buck Scales. The raindrops are in the shape of tadpoles, and they are hollow and full of air. The ridges of the mountains are horned backbones. The white mules have turned to a slate color and the faces of the priests have turned purple. The rain turns to sleet; the priests hear the "rattle of icy flakes." All these reptilian images prepare the reader for the malignant Buck Scales with his "repellent head . . . thick ridges" of his skull and his "rudimentary ears." He has a "malignant look" and Scales's "head plays from side to side exactly like a snake's."

Glossary

calabozo a prison, jail.

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