Vicente Blasco Ibanez
"The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse," "The Shadow of the Cathedral," "Blood and Sand," "La Bodega," etc.
Authorized translation from the Spanish by Charlotte Brewster Jordan
Translator of "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse"
CHAPTER I CAPTAIN ULYSSES FERRAGUT
CHAPTER II MATER AMPHITRITE
CHAPTER III PATER OCEANUS
CHAPTER IV FREYA
CHAPTER V THE AQUARIUM OF NAPLES
CHAPTER VI THE WILES OF CIRCE
CHAPTER VII THE SIN OF ULYSSES
CHAPTER VIII THE YOUNG TELEMACHUS
CHAPTER IX THE ENCOUNTER AT MARSEILLES
CHAPTER X IN BARCELONA
CHAPTER XI "FAREWELL, I AM GOING TO DIE"
CHAPTER XII AHPHITRITE!... AMPHITRITE!
CAPTAIN ULYSSES FERRAGUT
His first gallantries were with an empress. He was ten years old, and the empress six hundred.
His father, Don Esteban Ferragut—third quota of the College of Notaries—had always had a great admiration for the things of the past. He lived near the cathedral, and on Sundays and holy days, instead of following the faithful to witness the pompous ceremonials presided over by the cardinal-archbishop, used to betake himself with his wife and son to hear mass in San Juan del Hospital,—a little church sparsely attended the rest of the week.
The notary, who had read Walter Scott in his youth, used to gaze on the old and turreted walls surrounding the church, and feel something of the bard's thrills about his own, his native land. The Middle Ages was the period in which he would have liked to have lived. And as he trod the flagging of the Hospitolarios, good Don Esteban, little, chubby, and near-sighted, used to feel within him the soul of a hero born too late. The other churches, huge and rich, appeared to him with their blaze of gleaming gold, their alabaster convolutions and their jasper columns, mere monuments of insipid vulgarity. This one had been erected by the Knights of Saint John, who, united with the Templars, had aided King James in the conquest of Valencia.
Upon crossing the covered passageway leading from the street to the inner court, he was accustomed to salute the Virgin of the Conquest, an image of rough stone in faded colors and dull gold, seated on a bench, brought thither by the knights of the military order. Some sour orange trees spread their branching verdure over the walls of the church,—a blackened, rough stone edifice perforated with long, narrow, window-like niches now closed with mud plaster. From the salient buttresses of its reinforcements jutted forth, in the highest parts, great fabled monsters of weather-beaten, crumbling stone.
In its only nave was now left very little of this romantic exterior. The baroque taste of the seventeenth century had hidden the Gothic arch under another semi-circular one, besides covering the walls with a coat of whitewash. But the medieval reredos, the nobiliary coats of arms, and the tombs of the Knights of Saint John with their Gothic inscriptions still survived the profane restoration, and that in itself was enough to keep up the notary's enthusiasm.
Moreover the quality of the faithful who attended its services had to be taken into consideration. They were few but select, always the same. Some of them would drop into their places, gouty and relaxed, supported by an old servant wearing a shabby lace mantilla as though she were the housekeeper. Others would remain standing during the service holding up proudly their emaciated heads that presented the profile of a fighting cock, and crossing upon the breast their gloved hands,—always in black wool in the winter and in thread in the summer time. Ferragut knew all their names, having read them in the Trovas of Mosen Febrer, a metrical composition in Provencal, about the warriors that came to the neighborhood of Valencia from Aragon, Catalunia, the South of France, England and remote Germany.
At the conclusion of the mass, the imposing personages would nod their heads, saluting the faithful nearest them. "Good day!" To these, it was as if the sun had just arisen: the hours before did not count. And the notary with meek voice would enlarge his response: "Good day, Senor Marquis!" "Good day, Senor Baron!" Although his relations never went beyond this salutation, Ferragut used to feel toward these noble personages the sympathy that the customers have for an establishment, looking upon them with affectionate eyes for many years without presuming to exchange more than a greeting with them.
His son Ulysses was exceedingly bored as he followed the monotonous incidents of the chanted mass in the darkened, almost deserted, church. The rays of the sun, oblique beams of gold that filtered in from above, illuminating the spirals of dust, flies and moths, made him think in a homesick way of the lush green of the orchard, the white spots of the hamlets, the black smoke columns of the harbor filled with steamships, and the triple file of bluish convexities crowned with froth that were discharging their contents with a sonorous surge upon the bronze-colored beach.
When the embroidered mantles of the three priests ceased to gleam before the high altar, and another priest in black and white appeared in the pulpit, Ulysses would turn his glance toward a side chapel. The sermon always represented for him a half hour of somnolence, peopled with his own lively imaginings. The first thing that his eyes used to see in the chapel of Santa Barbara was a chest nailed to the wall high above him, a sepulcher of painted wood with no other adornment than the inscription: "Aqui yace Dona Constansa Augusta, Emperatriz de Grecia,"—Here lies Constance Augusta, Empress of Greece.
The name of Greece always had the power of exciting the little fellow's imagination. His godfather, the lawyer Labarta, poet-laureate, could not repeat this name without a lively thrill passing across his grizzled beard and a new light in his eyes. Sometimes the mysterious power of such a name evoked a new mystery and a more intense interest,—Byzantium. How could that august lady, sovereign of remote countries of magnificence and vision, have come to leave her remains in a murky chapel of Valencia within a great chest like those that treasured the remnants of old trumpery in the garrets of the notary?...
One day after mass Don Esteban had rapidly recounted her history to his little son. She was the daughter of Frederick the Second of Suabia, a Hohenstaufen, an emperor of Germany who esteemed still more his crown of Sicily. In the palaces of Palermo,—veritable enchanted bowers of Oriental gardens,—he had led the life both of pagan and savant, surrounded by poets and men of science (Jews, Mahometans and Christians), by Oriental dancers, alchemists, and ferocious Saracen Guards. He legislated as did the jurisconsults of ancient Rome, at the same time writing the first verses in Italian. His life was one continual combat with the Popes who hurled upon him excommunication upon excommunication. For the sake of peace he had become a crusader and set forth upon the conquest of Jerusalem. But Saladin, another philosopher of the same class, had soon come to an agreement with his Christian colleague. The position of a little city surrounded with untilled land and an empty sepulcher was really not worth the trouble of decapitating mankind through the centuries. The Saracen monarch, therefore, graciously delivered Jerusalem over to him, and the Pope again excommunicated Frederick for having conquered the Holy Land without bloodshed.
"He was a great man," Don Esteban used to murmur. "It must be admitted that he was a great man...."
He would say this timidly, regretting that his enthusiasm for that remote epoch should oblige him to make this concession to an enemy of the Church. He shuddered to think of those sacrilegious books that nobody had seen, but whose paternity Rome was accustomed to attribute to this Sicilian Emperor—especially Los Tres Impostores (The Three Imposters), in which Frederick measured Moses, Jesus and Mahomet, by the same standard. This royal author was, moreover, the most ancient journalist of history, the first that in the full thirteenth century had dared to appeal to the judgment of public opinion in his manifestoes against Rome.
His daughter had married an Emperor of Byzantium, Juan Dukas Vatatzes, the famous "Vatacio," when he was fifty and she fourteen. She was a natural daughter soon legitimized like almost all his progeny,—a product of his free harem, in which were mingled Saracen beauties and Italian marchionesses. And the poor young girl married to "Vatacio the heretic," by a father in need of political alliances had lived long years in the Orient as a basilisa or empress, arrayed in garments of stiff embroidery representing scenes from the holy books, shod with buskins laced with purple which bore on their soles eagles of gold,—the highest symbol of the majesty of Rome.
At first she had reigned in Nicaea, refuge of the Greek Emperors while Constantinople was in the power of the Crusaders, founders of a Latin dynasty; then, when Vatacio died, the audacious Miguel Paleologo reconquered Constantinople, and the imperial widow found herself courted by this victorious adventurer. For many years she resisted his pretensions, finally maneuvering that her brother Manfred should return her to her own country, where she arrived just in time to receive news of her brother's death in battle, and to follow the flight of her sister-in-law and nephews. They all took refuge in a castle defended by Saracens in the service of Frederick, the only ones faithful to his memory.
The castle fell into the power of the warriors of the Church, and Manfred's wife was conducted to a prison where her life was shortly after extinguished. Obscurity swallowed up the last remnants of the family accursed by Rome. Death was always hovering around the basilisa. They all perished—her brother Manfred, her half-brother, the poetic and lamented Encio, hero of so many songs, and her nephew, the knightly Coradino, who was to die later on under the axe of the executioner upon attempting the defense of his rights. As the Oriental empress did not represent any danger for the dynasty of Anjou, the conqueror let her follow out her destiny, as lonely and forsaken as a Shakespearian Princess.
As the widow of the late Emperor she was supposed to have a rental of three thousand besantes of fine gold. But this remote rental never arrived, and almost as a pauper she embarked with her niece, Constanza, in a ship going toward the perfumed shores of the Gulf of Valencia, where she entered the convent of Santa Barbara. In the poverty of this recently founded convent, the poor Empress lived until the following century, recalling the adventures of her melancholy destiny and seeing in imagination the palace of golden mosaics on Lake Nicaea, the gardens where "Vatacio" had wished to die under a purple tent, the gigantic walls of Constantinople, and the arches of Saint Sophia, with its hieratic galaxies of saints and crowned monarchs.
From all her journeys and glittering fortunes she had preserved but one thing—a stone—the sole baggage that accompanied her upon disembarking on the shore of Valencia. It was a fragment from Nicodemia that had miraculously sent forth water for the baptism of Santa Barbara.
The notary used to point out this rough, sacred stone inlaid in a baptismal font of Holy Water. Without ceasing to admire these historic bits of knowledge, Ulysses, nevertheless, used to receive them with a certain ingratitude.
"My godfather could explain things to me in a better way.... My godfather knows more."
When surveying the chapel of Santa Barbara during the Mass, he used always to turn his eyes away from the funeral chest. The thought of those bones turned to dust filled him with repugnance. That Dona Constanza did not exist for him. The one who was interesting to him was the other one, a little further on who was painted in a small picture. Dona Constanza had had leprosy—an infirmity that in those days was not permitted to Empresses—so Santa Barbara had miraculously cured her devotee. In order to perpetuate this event, Santa Barbara was depicted on the canvas as a lady dressed in a full skirt and slashed sleeves, and at her feet was the basilisa in the dress of a Valencian peasant arrayed in great jewels. In vain Don Esteban affirmed that this picture had been painted centuries after the death of the Empress. The child's imagination vaulted disdainfully over such difficulties. Just as she appeared on the canvas, Dona Constanza must have been—flaxen-haired, with great black eyes, exceedingly handsome and a little inclined to stoutness, perhaps, as was becoming to a woman accustomed to trailing robes of state and who had consented to disguise herself as a country-woman, merely because of her piety.
The image of the Empress obsessed his childish thoughts. At night when he felt afraid in bed, impressed by the enormousness of the room that served as his sleeping chamber, it was enough for him to recall the sovereign of Byzantium to make him forget immediately his disquietude and the thousand queer noises in the old building. "Dona Constanza!"... And he would go off to sleep cuddling the pillow, as though it were the head of the basilisa, his closed eyes continuing to see the black eyes of the regal Senora, maternal and affectionate.
All womankind, on coming near him, took on something of that other one who had been sleeping for the past six centuries in the upper part of the chapel wall. When his mother, sweet and pallid Dona Cristina, would stop her fancy work for an instant to give him a kiss, he always saw in her smile something of the Empress. When Visenteta, a maid from the country—a brunette, with eyes like blackberries, rosy-cheeked and soft-skinned—would help him to undress, or awaken him to take him to school, Ulysses would always throw his arms around her as though enchanted by the perfume of her vigorous and chaste vitality. "Visenteta!... Oh, Visenteta!..." And he was thinking of Dona Constanza; Empresses must be just that fragrant.... Just like that must be the texture of their skin!... And mysterious and incomprehensible thrills would pass over his body like light exhalations, bubbling up from the slime that is sleeping in the depths of all infancy and coming to the surface during adolescence.
His father guessed in part this imaginary life upon seeing his pet plays and readings.
"Ah, comedian!... Ah, play-actor!... You are like your godfather."
He used to say this with an ambiguous smile in which were equally mingled his contempt for useless idealism and his respect for the artist—a respect similar to the veneration that the Arabs feel for the demented, believing their insanity to be a gift from God.
Dona Cristina was very anxious that this only son, as spoiled and coddled as though he were a Crown Prince, should become a priest. To see him intone his first Mass!... Then a canon; then a prelate! Who knew if perhaps when she was no longer living, other women might not admire him when preceded by a cross of gold, trailing the red state robe of a cardinal-archbishop, and surrounded by a robed staff—envying the mother who had given birth to this ecclesiastical magnate!...
In order to guide the inclinations of her son she had installed a chapel in one of the empty rooms of the great old house. Ulysses' school companions on free afternoons would hasten thither, doubly attracted by the enchantment, of "playing priest" and by the generous refreshment that Dona Cristina used to prepare for all the parish clergy.
This solemnity would begin with the furious pealing of some bells hanging over the parlor door, causing the notary's clients, seated in the vestibule waiting for the papers that the clerks were just scribbling off at full speed, to raise their heads in astonishment. The metallic uproar rocked the edifice whose corners had seemed so full of silence, and even disturbed the calm of the street through which a carriage only occasionally passed.
While some of his chums were lighting the candles on the shrines and unfolding the sacred altar cloths of beautiful lace work made by Dona Cristina, the son and his more intimate friends were arraying themselves before the faithful, covering themselves with surplices and gold-worked vestments and putting wonderful caps on their heads. The mother, who was peeping from behind one of the doors, had to make a great effort not to rush in and devour Ulysses with kisses. With what grace he was imitating the mannerisms and genuflections of the chief priest!...
Up to this point all went perfectly. The three officiating near the pyramid of lights were singing at the top of their lungs, and the chorus of the faithful were responding from the end of the room with tremors of impatience. Suddenly surged forth Protest, Schism and Heresy. Those at the altar had already done more than enough. They must now give up their chasubles to those who were looking on in order that they, in their turn, might exercise the sacred ministry. That was what they had agreed upon. But the clergy resisted with the haughtiness and majesty of acquired right, and impious hands began pulling off the garb of the saints, profaning them and even tearing them. Yells, kicks, images and wax candles on the floor!... Scandal and abominations as though the Anti-Christ were already born!... The prudence of Ulysses put an end to the struggle: "What if we should go up in the porche to play?..."
The porche was the immense garret of the great old house, so all accepted the plan with enthusiasm. Church was over! And like a flock of birds they went flying up the stairs over the landings of multi-colored tiles with their chipped glaze, disclosing the red brick underneath. The Valencian potters of the eighteenth century had adorned these tiles with Berber and Christian galleys, birds from nearby Albufera, white-wigged hunters offering flowers to a peasant girl, fruits of all kinds, and spirited horsemen on steeds that were half the size of their bodies parading before houses and trees that scarcely reached to the knees of their prancing coursers.
The noisy group spread themselves over the upper floor as in the most terrible invasions of history. Cats and mice fled together to the far-away corners. The terrified birds sped like arrows through the skylights of the roof.
The poor notary!... He had never returned empty-handed when called outside of the city by the confidence of the rich farmers, incapable of believing in any other legal science than his. That was the time when the antique dealers had not yet discovered rich Valencia, where the common people dressed in silks for centuries, and furniture, clothing and pottery seemed always to be impregnated with the light of steady sunshine and with the blue of an always clear atmosphere.
Don Esteban, who believed himself obliged to be an antiquarian by virtue of his membership in various local societies, was continually filling up his house with mementoes of the past picked up in the villages, or that his clients freely gave him. He was not able to find wall space enough for the pictures, nor room in his salons for the furniture. Therefore, the latest acquisitions were provisionally taking their way to the porche to await definite installation. Years afterward, when he should retire from his profession, he might be able to construct a medieval castle—the most medieval possible on the coasts of the Marina; near to the village where he had been born, he would put each object in a place appropriate to its importance.
Whatever the notary deposited in the rooms of the first floor would soon make its appearance in the garret as mysteriously as though it had acquired feet; for Dona Cristina and her servants, obliged to live in a continual struggle with the dust and cobwebs of an edifice that was slowly dropping to pieces, were beginning to feel a ferocious hatred of everything old.
Up here on the top floor, discords and battles because of lack of things to dress up in, were not possible among the boys. They had only to sink their hands into any one of the great old chests, pulsing with the dull gnawing of the wood-borers, whose iron fretwork, pierced like lace, was dropping away from its supports. Some of the youngsters, brandishing short, small swords with hilts of mother-of-pearl, or long blades such as the Cid carried, would then wrap themselves in mantles of crimson silk darkened by ages. Others would throw over their shoulders damask counterpanes of priceless old brocade, peasant skirts with great flowers of gold, farthingales of richly woven texture that crackled like paper.
When they grew tired of imitating comedians with noisy clashing of spades and death-blows, Ulysses and the other active lads would propose the game of "Bandits and Bailiffs." But thieves could not go clad in such rich cloths; their attire ought to be inconspicuous. And so they overturned some mountains of dull-colored stuffs that appeared like mere sacking in whose dull woven designs could be dimly discerned legs, arms, heads, and branching sprays of metallic green.
Don Esteban had found these fragments already torn by the farmers into covers for their large earthen jars of oil or into blankets for the work-mules. They were bits of tapestry copied from cartoons of Titian and Rubens which the notary was keeping only out of historic respect. Tapestry then, like all things that are plentiful, had no special merit. The old-clothes dealers of Valencia had in their storehouses dozens of the same kind of remnants and when the festival of Corpus Christi approached they used them to cover the natural barricades formed by the ground, instead of building new ones in the street followed by the processions.
At other times, Ulysses repeated the same game under the name of "Indians and Conquerors." He had found in the mountains of books stored away by his father, a volume that related in double columns, with abundant wood cuts, the navigations of Columbus, the wars of Hernando Cortez, and the exploits of Pizarro.
This book cast a glamor over the rest of his existence. Many times afterwards, when a man, he found this image latent in the background of his likes and desires. He really had read few of its paragraphs, but what interested him most were the engravings—in his estimation more worthy of admiration than all the pictures in the garret.
With the point of his long sword he would trace on the ground, just as Pizarro had done before his discouraged companions, ready on the Island of Gallo to desist from the conquest: "Let every good Castilian pass this line...." And the good Castilians—a dozen little scamps with long capes and ancient swords whose hilts reached up to their mouths—would hasten to group themselves around their chief, who was imitating the heroic gestures of the conqueror. Then was heard the war-cry: "At them! Down with the Indians!"
It was agreed that the Indians should flee and on that account they were modestly clad in scraps of tapestry and cock feathers on their head. But they fled treacherously, and upon finding themselves upon varguenos, tables and pyramids of chairs, they began to shy books at their persecutors. Venerable leather volumes decorated with dull gold, and folios of white parchment fell face downward on the floor, their fastenings breaking apart and spreading abroad a rain of printed or manuscript pages and yellowing engravings—as though tired of living, they were letting their life-blood flow from their bodies.
The uproar of these wars of conquest brought Dona Cristina to the rescue. She no longer cared to harbor little imps who preferred the adventurous whoops of the garret to the mystic delights of the abandoned chapel. The Indians were most worthy of execration. In order to make splendor of attire counterbalance the humility of their role, they had slashed their sinful scissors into entire tapestries, mutilating vestments so as to arrange upon their breasts the head of a hero or goddess.
Finding himself without playfellows, Ulysses discovered a new enchantment in the garret life. The silence haunted by the creaking of wood and the scampering of invisible animals, the inexplicable fall of a picture or of some piled-up books, used to make him thrill with a sensation of fear and nocturnal mystery, despite the rays of sunlight that came filtering in through the skylights; but he began to enjoy this solitude when he found that he could people it to his fancy. Real beings soon annoyed him like the inopportune sounds that sometimes awoke him from beautiful dreams. The garret was a world several centuries old that now belonged entirely to him and adjusted itself to all his fancies.
Seated in a trunk without a lid, he made it balance itself, imitating with his mouth the roarings of the tempest. It was a caravel, a galleon, a ship such as he had seen in the old books, its sails painted with lions and crucifixes, a castle on the poop and a figure-head carved on the prow that dipped down into the waves, only to reappear dripping with foam.
The trunk, by dint of vigorous pushing, could be made to reach the rugged coast at the corner of the old chest, the triangular gulf made of two chests of drawers, and the smooth beach formed by some bundles of clothes. And the navigator, followed by a crew as numerous as it was imaginary, would leap ashore, sword in hand, scaling some mountains of books that were the Andes, and piercing various volumes with the tip of an old lance in order to plant his standard there. Oh, why had he not been one of the conquerors?...
Fragments of a conversation between his godfather and his father, who believed everything was already known regarding the surface of the earth, left him unconvinced. Something must still be left for him to discover! He was the meeting point of two families of sailors. His mother's brothers had ships on the coast of Catalunia. His father's ancestors had been valorous and obscure navigators, and there in the Marina was his uncle, the doctor, a genuine man of the sea.
When he grew tired of these imaginative orgies, he used to examine the portraits of different epochs stowed away in the garret. He preferred those of the women—noble dames with short-cropped, curled hair bound by a knot of ribbon on the temple, like those that Velazquez loved to paint, and long faces of the century following, with cherry-colored mouth, two patches on the cheeks, and a tower of white hair. The memory of the Grecian basilisa appeared to emanate from these paintings. All the high-born dames seemed to have something in common with her.
Among the portraits of the men there was one of a bishop that irritated him by its absurd childishness. He appeared almost his own age, an adolescent bishop, with imperious and aggressive eyes. These eyes used to inspire the sensitive lad with a certain terror, and he therefore decided to have done with them. "Take that!" and he ran his sword through the old chipped picture, making two gashes replace the challenging eyes. Then he added a few gashes more for good measure.... That same evening, his godfather having been invited to supper, the notary spoke of a certain portrait acquired a few months before in the neighborhood of Jativa, a city that he had always regarded with interest on account of the Borgias having been born in one of its suburbs. The two men were of the same opinion. That almost infantile prelate could have been no other than Caesar Borgia, made Archbishop of Valencia when sixteen years old by his father, the Pope. On their first free day they would examine the portrait with particular attention.... And Ulysses, hanging his head, felt every mouthful sticking in his throat.
For the fanciful lad, a pleasure even more intense and substantial than his lonely games in the garret was a visit to his godfather's home; to his childish eyes, this godparent, the lawyer, Don Carmelo Labarta, was the personification of the ideal life, of glory, of poesy. The notary was wont to speak of him with enthusiasm, yet pitying him at the same time.
"That poor Don Carmelo!... The leading authority of the age in civilian matters! By applying himself he might earn some money, but verses attracted him more than lawsuits."
Ulysses used to enter his office with keen emotion. Above rows of multicolored and gilded books that covered the walls, he saw some great plaster heads with towering foreheads and vacant eyes that seemed always to be contemplating an immense nothingness.
The child could repeat their names like a fragment from a choir book, from Homer to Victor Hugo. Then his glance would seek another head equally glorious although less white, with blonde and grizzled beard, rubicund nose and bilious cheeks that in certain moments scattered bits of scale. The sweet eyes of his godfather—yellowish eyes spotted with black dots—used to receive Ulysses with the doting affection of an aging, old bachelor who needs to invent a family. He it was who had given him at the baptismal font the name which had awakened so much admiration and ridicule among his school companions; with the patience of an old grand-sire narrating saintly stories to his descendants, he would tell Ulysses over and over the adventures of the navigating King of Ithaca for whom he had been named.
With no less devotion did the lad regard all the souvenirs of glory that adorned his house—wreaths of golden leaves, silver cups, nude marble statuettes, placques of different metals upon plush backgrounds on which glistened imperishably the name of the poet Labarta. All this booty the tireless Knight of Letters had conquered by means of his verse.
When the Floral Games were announced, the competitors used to tremble lest it might occur to the great Don Carmelo to hanker after some of the premiums. With astonishing facility he used to carry off the natural flower awarded for the heroic ode, the cup of gold for the amorous romance, the pair of statues dedicated to the most complete historical study, the marble bust for the best legend in prose, and even the "art bronze" reward of philological study. The other aspirants might try for the left-overs.
Fortunately he had confined himself to local literature, and his inspiration would not admit any other drapery than that of Valencian verse. Next to Valencia and its past glories, Greece claimed his admiration. Once a year Ulysses beheld him arrayed in his frock coat, his chest starred with decorations and in his lapel the golden cicada, badge of the poets of Provence.
He it was who was going to be celebrated in the fiesta of Provencal literature, in which he always played the principal role; he was the prize bard, lecturer, or simple idol to whom other poets were dedicating their eulogies—clerics given to rhyming, personifiers of religious images, silk-weavers who felt the vulgarity of their existence perturbed by the itchings of inspiration—all the brotherhood of popular bards of the ingenuous and domestic brand who recalled the Meistersingers of the old German cities.
His godson always imagined him with a crown of laurel on his brows just like those mysterious blind poets whose portraits and busts ornamented the library. In real life he saw perfectly well that his head had no such adornment, but reality lost its value before the firmness of his conceptions. His godfather certainly must wear a wreath when he was not present. Undoubtedly he was accustomed to wear it as a house cap when by himself.
Another thing which he greatly admired about the grand man was his extensive travels. He had lived in distant Madrid—the scene of almost all the novels read by Ulysses—and once upon a time he had crossed the frontier, going courageously into a remote country called the south of France, in order to visit another poet whom he was accustomed to call "My friend, Mistral." And the lad's imagination, hasty and illogical in its decisions, used to envelop his godfather in a halo of historic interest, similar to that of the conquerors.
At the stroke of the twelve o'clock chimes Labarta, who never permitted any informality in table matters, would become very impatient, cutting short the account of his journeys and triumphs.
"Dona Pepa!... We have a guest here."
Dona Pepa was the housekeeper, the great man's companion who for the past fifteen years had been chained to the chariot of his glory. The portieres would part and through them would advance a huge bosom protruding above an abdomen cruelly corseted. Afterwards, long afterwards, would appear a white and radiant countenance, a face like a full moon, and while her smile like a night star was greeting the little Ulysses, the dorsal complement of her body kept on coming in—forty carnal years, fresh, exuberant, tremendous.
The notary and his wife always spoke of Dona Pepa as of a familiar person, but the child never had seen her in their home. Dona Cristina used to eulogize her care of the poet—but distantly and with no desire to make her acquaintance—while Don Esteban would make excuses for the great man.
"What can you expect!... He is an artist, and artists are not able to live as God commands. All of them, however dignified they may appear, are rather carnal at heart. What a pity! such an eminent lawyer!... The money that he could make...!"
His father's lamentations opened up new horizons to the little fellow's suspicions. Suddenly he grasped the prime motive force of our existence, hitherto only conjectured and enveloped in mystery. His godfather had relations with a woman; he was enamored like the heroes of the novels! And the boy recalled many of his Valencian poems, all rhapsodizing a lady—sometimes singing of her great beauty with the rapture and noble lassitude of a recent possession; at others complaining of her coldness, begging of her that disposition of her soul without which the gift of the body is as naught.
Ulysses imagined to himself a grand senora as beautiful as Dona Constanza. At the very least, she must be a Marchioness. His godfather certainly deserved that much! And he also imagined to himself that their rendezvous must be in the morning, in one of the strawberry gardens near the city, where his parents were accustomed to take him for his breakfast chocolate after hearing the first dawn service on the Sundays of April and May.
Much later, when seated at his godfather's table, he surprised the poet exchanging glances over his head with the housekeeper, and began to suspect that possibly Dona Pepa might be the inspiration of so much lachrymose and enthusiastic verse. But his great loyalty rebelled before such a supposition. No, no, it could not be possible; assuredly there must be another!
The notary, who for long years had been friendly with Labarta, kept trying to direct him with his practical spirit, like the boy who guides a blind man. A modest income inherited from his parents was enough for the poet to live upon. In vain his friend brought him cases that represented enormous fees. The voluminous documents would become covered with dust on his table and Don Esteban would have to saddle himself with the dates in order that the end of the legal procedures should not slip by.
His son, Ulysses would be a very different sort of man, thought the notary. In his mind's eye he could see the lad as a great civilian jurist like his godfather, but with a positive activity inherited from his father. Fortune would enter through his doors on waves of stamped paper.
Furthermore, he would also possess the notarial studio—the dusty office with its ancient furniture and great wardrobes, with its screen doors and green curtains, behind which reposed the volumes of the protocol, covered with yellowing calfskin with initials and numbers on their backs. Don Esteban realized fully all that his study represented.
"There is no orange grove," he would say in his expansive moments; "there are no rice plantations that can produce what this estate does. Here there are no frosts, nor strong sea winds, nor inundations."
The clientele was certain—people from the church, who had the devotees back of them and considered Don Esteban as one of their class, and farmers, many rich farmers. The families of the country folk, whenever they heard any talk about smart men, always thought immediately of the notary from Valencia. With religious veneration they saw him adjust his spectacles in order to read as an expert the bill of sale or dowry contract that his amanuenses had just drawn up. It was written in Castilian and for the better understanding of his listeners he would read it, without the slightest hesitation, in Valencian. What a man!...
Afterwards, while the contracting parties were signing it, the notary raising the little glass window at the front, would entertain the assembly with some local legends, always decent, without any illusions to the sins of the flesh, but always those in which the digestive organs figured with every degree of license. The clients would roar with laughter, captivated by this funny eschatalogy, and would haggle less in the matter of fees. Famous Don Esteban!... Just for the pleasure of hearing his yarns they would have liked a legal paper drawn up every month.
The future destiny of the notarial crown prince was the object of many after-dinner conversations on the special days when the poet was an invited guest.
"What do you want to be?" Labarta asked his godson.
His mother's supplicating glance seemed desperately to implore the little fellow: "Say Archbishop, my king." For the good senora, her son could not make his debut in any other way than in a church career. The notary always used to speak very positively from his own viewpoint, without consulting the interested party. He would be an eminent jurisconsult; thousands of dollars were going to roll toward him as though they were pennies; he was going to figure in university solemnities in a cloak of crimson satin and an academic cap announcing from its multiple sides the tasseled glory of the doctorate. The students in his lecture-room would listen to him most respectfully. Who knew what the government of his country might not have in store for him!...
Ulysses interrupted these images of future grandeur:
"I want to be a captain."
The poet approved. He felt the unreflective enthusiasm which all pacific and sedentary beings have for the plume and the sword. At the mere sight of a uniform his soul always thrilled with the amorous tenderness of a child's nurse when she finds herself courted by a soldier.
"Fine!" said Labarta. "Captain of what?... Of artillery?... Of the staff?..."
"No; captain of a ship."
Don Esteban looked up at the roof, raising his hands in horror. He well knew who was guilty of this ridiculous idea, the one who had put such absurd longings in his son's head!
And he was thinking of his brother, the retired doctor, who was living in the paternal home over there in the Marina:—an excellent man, but a little crazy, whom the people on the coast called the Dotor, and the poet Labarta had nicknamed the Triton.
When the Triton occasionally appeared in Valencia, thrifty Dona Cristina was obliged to modify the dietary of her family. This man ate nothing but fish, and her soul of an economical housewife worried greatly at the thought of the extraordinarily high price that fish brings in a port of exportation.
Life in that house, where everything always jogged along so uniformly, was greatly upset by the presence of the doctor. A little after daybreak, just when its inhabitants were usually enjoying the dessert of their night's sleep, hearing drowsily the rumble of the early morning carts and the bell-ringing of the first Masses, the house would reecho to the rude banging of doors and heavy footsteps making the stairway creak. It was the Triton rushing out on the street, incapable of remaining between four walls after the first streak of light. Following the currents of the early morning life, he would reach the market, stopping before the flower stands where were the most numerous gatherings of women.
The eyes of the women turned toward him instinctively with an expression of interest and fear. Some blushed as he passed by, imagining against their will what an embrace from this hideous and restless Colossus must be.
"He is capable of crushing a flea on his arm," the sailors of his village used to boast when trying to emphasize the hardness of his biceps. His body lacked fat, and under his swarthy skin bulged great, rigid and protruding muscles—an Herculean texture from which had been eliminated every element incapable of producing strength. Labarta found in him a great resemblance to the marine divinities. He was Neptune before his head had silvered, or Poseidon as the primitive Greek poets had seen him with hair black and curly, features tanned by the salt air, and with a ringleted beard whose two spiral ends seemed formed by the dripping of the water of the sea. The nose somewhat flattened by a blow received in his youth, and the little eyes, oblique and tenacious, gave to his countenance an expression of Asiatic ferocity, but this impression melted away when his mouth parted in a smile, showing his even, glistening teeth, the teeth of a man of the sea accustomed to live upon salt food.
During the first few days of his visit he would wander through the streets wavering and bewildered. He was afraid of the carriages; the patter of the passers-by on the pavements annoyed him; he, who had seen the most important ports of both hemispheres, complained of the bustle in the capital of a province. Finally he would instinctively take the road from the harbor in search of the sea, his eternal friend, the first to salute him every morning upon opening the door of his own home down there on the Marina.
On these excursions he would oftentimes be accompanied by his little nephew. The bustle on the docks,—(the creaking of the cranes, the dull rumble of the carts, the deafening cries of the freighters),—always had for him a certain music reminiscent of his youth when he was traveling as a doctor on a transatlantic steamer.
His eyes also received a caress from the past upon taking in the panorama of the port—steamers smoking, sailboats with their canvas spread out in the sunlight, bulwarks of orange crates, pyramids of onions, walls of sacks of rice and compact rows of wine casks paunch to paunch. And coming to meet the outgoing cargo were long lines of unloaded goods being lined up as they arrived—hills of coal coming from England, sacks of cereal from the Black Sea, dried codfish from Newfoundland sounding like parchment skins as they thudded down on the dock, impregnating the atmosphere with their salty dust, and yellow lumber from Norway that still held a perfume of the pine woods.
Oranges and onions fallen from the crates were rotting in the sun, scattering their sweet and acrid juices. The sparrows were hopping around the mountains of wheat, flitting timidly away when hearing approaching footsteps. Over the blue surface of the harbor waters the sea gulls of the Mediterranean, small, fine and white as doves, twined in and out in their interminable contra-dances.
The Triton went on enumerating to his nephew the class and specialty of every kind of vessel; and upon discovering that Ulysses was capable of confusing a brigantine with a frigate, he would roar in scandalized amazement.
"Heavens! Then what in the devil do they teach your in school?..."
Upon passing near the citizens of Valencia seated on the wharves, fishing rod in hand, he would shoot a glance of commiseration toward their empty baskets. Over there by his house on the coast, before the sun would be up, he would already have covered the bottom of his boat with enough to eat for a week. The misery of the cities!
Standing on the last points of the rocky ledge, his glance would sweep the immense plain, describing to his nephew the mysteries hidden beyond the horizon. At their left, beyond the blue mountains of Oropesa, which bound the Valencian gulf, he could see in imagination Barcelona, where he had numerous friends, Marseilles, that prolongation of the Orient fastened on the European coast, and Genoa with its terraced palaces on hills covered with gardens. Then his vision would lose itself on the horizon stretching out in front of him. That was the road of his happy youth.
Straight ahead in a direct line was Naples with its smoking mountain, its music and its swarthy dancing girls with hoop earrings; further on, the Isles of Greece; at the foot of an Aquatic Street, Constantinople; and still beyond, bordering the great liquid court of the Black Sea, a series of ports where the Argonauts—sunk in a seething mass of races, fondled by the felinism of slaves, the voluptuosity of the Orientals, and the avarice of the Jews—were fast forgetting their origin.
At their right was Africa; the Egyptian ports with their traditional corruption that at sunset was beginning to tremble and steam like a fetid morass; Alexandria in whose low coffee houses were imitation Oriental dancers with no more clothes than a pocket handkerchief, every woman of a different nation and shrieking in chorus all the languages of the earth....
The doctor withdrew his eyes from the sea in order to observe his flattened nose. He was recalling a night of Egyptian heat increased by the fumes of whiskey; the familiarity of the half-clad public women, the scuffle with some ruddy Northern sailors, the encounter in the dark which obliged him to flee with bleeding face to the ship that, fortunately, was weighing anchor at dawn. Like all Mediterranean men, he never went ashore without wearing a dagger hidden on his person, and he had to "sting" with it in order to make way for himself.
"What times those were!" said the Triton with more regret and homesickness than remorse; and then he would add by way of excuse, "Ay, but then I was only twenty-four years old!"
These memories made him turn his eyes toward a huge bluish bulk extending out into the sea and looking to the casual spectator like a great barren island. It was the promontory crowned by the Mongo, the great Ferrarian promontory of the ancient geographers, the furthest-reaching point of the peninsula in the lower Mediterranean that closes the Gulf of Valencia on the south.
It had the form of a hand whose digits were mountains, but lacked the thumb. The other four fingers extended out into the waves, forming the capes of San Antonio, San Martin, La Nao and Almoraira. In one of their coves was the Triton's native village, and the home of the Ferraguts—hunters of black pirates in other days, contrabandists at times in modern days, sailors in all ages, appearing originally, perhaps, from those first wooden horses that came leaping over the foam seething around the promontory.
In that home in the Marina he wished to live and die, with no further desire of seeing more lands, with that sudden immovability that attacks the vagabonds of the waves and makes them fix themselves upon a ledge of the coast like a mollusk or bunch of seaweed.
Soon the Triton grew tired of these strolls to the harbor. The sea of Valencia was not a real sea for him. The waters of the river and of the irrigation canals disturbed him. When it rained in the mountains of Aragon, an earthy liquid always discharged itself into the Gulf, tinting the waves with flesh color and the foam with yellow. Besides, it was impossible to indulge in his daily sport of swimming. One winter morning, when he began to undress himself on the beach, the crowd gathered around him as though attracted by a phenomenon. Even the fish of the Gulf had to him an insufferable slimy taste.
"I'm going back home," he would finally say to the notary and his wife. "I can't understand how in the world you are able to live here!"
In one of these retreats to the Marina he insisted upon taking Ulysses home with him. The summer season was beginning, the boy would be free from school for three months, and the notary, who was not able to go far away from the city, was going to pass the summer with his family on the beach at Cabanal checkered by bad-smelling irrigation canals near a forlorn sea. The little fellow was looking very pale and weak on account of his studies and hectoring. His uncle would make him as strong and agile as a dolphin. And in spite of some very lively disputes, he succeeded in snatching the child away from Dona Cristina.
The first things that Ulysses admired upon entering the doctor's home were the three frigates adorning the ceiling of the dining-room—three marvelous vessels in which there was not lacking a single sail nor pulley rope, nor anchor, and which might be made to sail over the sea at a moment's notice.
They were the work of his grandfather Ferragut. Wishing to release his two sons from the marine service which had weighed upon the family for many centuries, he had sent them to the University of Valencia in order that they might become inland gentlemen. The older, Esteban, had scarcely terminated his career before he obtained a notaryship in Catalunia. The younger one, Antonio, became a doctor so as not to thwart the old man's wishes, but as soon as he acquired his degree he offered his services to a transatlantic steamer. His father had closed the door of the sea against him and he had entered by the window.
And so, as Ferragut Senior began to grow old, he lived completely alone. He used to look after his property—a few vineyards scattered along the coast in sight of his home—and was in frequent correspondence with his son, the notary. From time to time there came a letter from the younger one, his favorite, posted in remote countries that the old Mediterranean seaman knew only by hearsay. And during his long, dull hours in the shade of his arbor facing the blue and luminous sea, he used to entertain himself constructing these little models of boats. They were all frigates of great tonnage and fearless sail. Thus the old skipper would console himself for having commanded during his lifetime only heavy and clumsy merchant vessels like the ships of other centuries, in which he used to carry wine from Cette or cargo prohibited in Gibraltar and the coast of Africa.
Ulysses was not long in recognizing the rare popularity enjoyed by his uncle, the doctor—a popularity composed of the most antagonistic elements. The people used to smile in speaking of him as though he were a little touched, yet they dared to indulge in these smiles only when at a safe distance, for he inspired a certain terror in all of them. At the same time they used to admire him as a local celebrity, for he had traversed all seas, and possessed, besides, a violent and tempestuous strength which was the terror and pride of his neighbors. The husky youths when testing the vigor of their fists, boxing with crews of the English vessels that came there for cargoes of raisins, used to evoke the doctor's name as a consolation in case of defeat. "If only the Dotor could have been here!... Half a dozen Englishmen are nothing to him!"
There was no vigorous undertaking, however absurd it might be, that they would not believe him capable of. He used to inspire the faith of the miracle-working saints and audacious highway captains. On calm, sunshiny winter mornings the people would often go running down to the beach, looking anxiously over the lonely sea. The veterans who were toasting themselves in the sun near the overturned boats, on scanning the broad horizon, would finally discern an almost imperceptible point, a grain of sand dancing capriciously on the waves.
They would all break into shouts and conjectures. It was a buoy, a piece of masthead, the drift from a distant shipwreck. For the women it was somebody drowned, so bloated that it was floating like a leather bottle, after having been many days in the water.
Suddenly the same supposition would arise in every perplexed mind. "I wonder if it could be the Dotor!" A long silence.... The bit of wood was taking the form of a head; the corpse was moving. Many could now perceive the bubble of foam around his chest that was advancing like the prow of a ship, and the vigorous strokes of his arms.... "Yes, it surely was the Dotor!"... The old sea dogs loaned their telescopes to one another in order to recognize his beard sunk in the water and his face, contracted by his efforts or expanded by his snortings.
And the Dotor was soon treading the dry beach, naked and as serenely unashamed as a god, giving his hand to the men, while the women shrieked, lifting their aprons in front of one eye—terrified, yet admiring the dripping vision.
All the capes of the promontory challenged him to double them, swimming like a dolphin; he felt impelled to measure all the bays and coves with his arms, like a proprietor who distrusts another's measurements and rectifies them in order to affirm his right of possession. He was a human bark who, with the keel of his breast, cut the foam, whirling through the sunken rocks and the pacific waters in whose depths sparkled fishes among mother-of-pearl twigs and stars moving like flowers.
He used to seat himself to rest on the black rocks with overskirts of seaweed that raised or lowered their fringe at the caprice of the wave, awaiting the night and the chance vessel that might come to dash against them like a piece of bark. Like a marine reptile he had even penetrated certain caves of the coast, drowsy and glacial lakes illuminated by mysterious openings where the atmosphere is black and the water transparent, where the swimmer has a bust of ebony and legs of crystal. In the course of these swimming expeditions he ate all the living beings he encountered fastened to the rocks by antennas and arms. The friction of the great, terrified fish that fled, bumping against him with the violence of a projectile, used to make him laugh.
In the night hours passed before his grandfather's little ships, Ulysses used to hear the Triton speak of the Peje Nicolao, a man-fish of the Straits of Messina mentioned by Cervantes and other authors, who lived in the water maintaining himself by the donations from the ships. His uncle must be some relative of this Peje Nicolao. At other times this uncle would mention a certain Greek who in order to see his lady-love swam the Hellespont every night. And he, who used to know the Dardanelles, was longing to return there as a simple passenger merely that a poet named Lord Byron might not be the only one to imitate the legendary crossing.
The books that he kept in his home, the nautical charts fastened to the walls, the flasks and jars filled with the animal and vegetable life of the sea, and more than all this, his tastes which were so at variance with the customs of his neighbors, had given the Triton the reputation of a mysterious sage, the fame of a wizard.
All those who were well and strong considered him crazy, but the moment that there was the slightest break in their health they would share the same faith as the poor women who oftentimes passed long hours in the home of the Dotor, seeing his bark afar off and patiently awaiting his return from the sea, in order to show him the sick children they carried in their arms. He had an advantage over all other doctors, as he made no charge for his services; better still, many sick people came away from his house with money in their hands.
The Dotor was rich—the richest man in the countryside; a man who really did not know what to do with his money. His maid-servant—an old woman who had known his father and served his mother—used daily to receive from his hands the fish provided for the two with a regal generosity. The Triton, who had hoisted sail at daybreak, used to disembark before eleven, and soon the purpling lobster was crackling on the red coals, sending forth delicious odors; the stew pot was bubbling away, thickening its broth with the succulent fat of the sea-scorpion; the oil in the frying pan was singing, browning the flame-colored skin of the salmonettes; and the sea urchins and the mussels opened hissing under his knife, were emptying their still living pulp into the boiling stew pan. Furthermore, a cow with full udders was mooing in the yard, and dozens of chickens with innumerable broods were cackling incessantly.
The flour kneaded and baked by his servant, and the coffee thick as mud, was all that the Triton purchased with his money. If he hunted for a bottle of brandy on his return from a swim, it was only to use it in rubbing himself down.
Money entered through his doors once a year, when the girls of the vintage lined up among the trellises of his vineyards, cutting the bunches of little, close fruit and spreading them out to dry in some small sheds called riurraus. Thus was produced the small raisin preferred by the English for the making of their puddings. The sale was a sure thing, the boats always coming from the north to get the fruit. And the Triton, upon finding five or six thousand pesetas in his hand, would be greatly perplexed, inwardly asking himself what a man was ever going to do with so much money.
"All this is yours," he said, showing the house to his nephew.
His also the boat, the books and the antique furniture in whose drawers the money was so openly hid that it invited attention.
In spite of seeing himself lord of all that surrounded him, a rough and affectionate despotism, kept nevertheless, weighing the child down. He was very far from his mother, that good lady who was always closing the windows near him and never letting him go out without tying his neckscarf around him with an accompaniment of kisses.
Just when he was sleeping soundest, believing that the night would still be many hours longer, he would feel himself awakened by a violent tugging at his leg. His uncle could not touch him in any other way. "Get up, cabin boy!" In vain he would protest with the profound sleepiness of youth.... Was he, or was he not the "ship's cat" of the bark of which his uncle was the captain and only crew?...
His uncle's paws bared him to the blasts of salt air that were entering through the windows. The sea was dark and veiled by a light fog. The last stars were sparkling with twinkles of surprise, ready to flee. A crack began to appear on the leaden horizon, growing redder and redder every minute, like a wound through which the blood is flowing. The ship's cat was loaded up with various empty baskets, the skipper marching before him like a warrior of the waves, carrying the oars on his shoulders, his feet rapidly making hollows on the sand. Behind him the village was beginning to awaken and, over the dark waters, the sails of the fishermen, fleeing the inner sea, were slipping past like ghostly shrouds.
Two vigorous strokes of the oar sent their boat out from the little wharf of stones, and soon he was untying the sails from the gunwales and preparing the ropes. The unfurled canvas whistled and swelled in bellying whiteness. "There we are! Now for a run!"
The water was beginning to sing, slipping past both sides of the prow. Between it and the edge of the sail could be seen a bit of black sea, and coming little by little over its line, a great red streak. The streak soon became a helmet, then a hemisphere, then an Arabian arch confined at the bottom, until finally it shot up out of the liquid mass as though it were a bomb sending forth flashes of flame. The ash-colored clouds became stained with blood and the large rocks of the coast began to sparkle like copper mirrors. As the last stars were extinguished, a swarm of fire-colored fishes came trailing along before the prow, forming a triangle with its point in the horizon. The mist on the mountain tops was taking on a rose color as though its whiteness were reflecting a submarine eruption. "Bon dia!" called the doctor to Ulysses, who was occupied in warming his hands stiffened by the wind.
And, moved with childlike joy by the dawn of a new day, the Triton sent his bass voice booming across the maritime silence, several times intoning sentimental melodies that in his youth he had heard sung by a vaudeville prima donna dressed as a ship's boy, at other times caroling in Valencian the chanteys of the coast—fishermen's songs invented as they drew in their nets, in which most shameless words were flung together on the chance of making them rhyme. In certain windings of the coast the sail would be lowered, leaving the boat with no other motion than a gentle rocking around its anchor rope.
Upon seeing the space which had been obscured by the shadow of the boat's hulk, Ulysses found the bottom of the sea so near that he almost believed that he could touch it with the point of his oar. The rocks were like glass. In their interstices and hollows the plants were moving like living creatures, and the little animals had the immovability of vegetables and stones. The boat appeared to be floating in the air and athwart the liquid atmosphere that wraps this abysmal world, the fish hooks were dangling, and a swarm of fishes was swimming and wriggling toward its encounter with death.
It was a sparkling effervescence of yellowing flames, of bluish backs and rosy fins. Some came out from the caves silvered and vibrant as lightning flashes of mercury; others swam slowly, big-bellied, almost circular, with a golden coat of mail. Along the slopes, the crustaceans came scrambling along on their double row of claws attracted by this novelty that was changing the mortal calm of the under-sea where all follow and devour, only to be devoured in turn. Near the surface floated the medusae, living parasols of an opaline whiteness with circular borders of lilac or red bronze. Under their gelatinous domes was the skein of filaments that served them for locomotion, nutrition and reproduction.
The fishermen had only to pull in their lines and a new prisoner would fall into their boat. Their baskets were filling up so fast that the Triton and his nephew grew tired of this easy fishing.... The sun was now near the height of its curve, and every wavelet was carrying away a bit of the golden band that divided the blue immensity. The wood of the boat appeared to be on fire.
"We've earned our day's pay," said the Triton, looking at the sky and then at the baskets. "Now let's clean up a little bit."
And stripping off his clothing, he threw himself into the sea. Ulysses saw him descend from the center of the ring of foam opened by his body, and could gauge by it the profundity of that fantastic world composed of glassy rocks, animal plants and stone animals. As it went down, the tawny body of the swimmer took on the transparency of porcelain. It appeared of bluish crystal—a statue made of a Venetian mirror composition that was going to break as soon as it touched the bottom.
Like a god he was passing through the deeps, snatching plants out by the roots, pursuing with his hands the flashes of vermilion and gold hidden in the cracks of the rocks. Minutes would pass by; he was going to stay down forever; he would never come up again. And the boy was beginning to think uneasily of the possibility of having to guide the bark back to the coast all alone. Suddenly the body of white crystal began taking on a greenish hue, growing larger and larger, becoming dark and coppery, until above the surface appeared the head of the swimmer, who, spouting and snorting, was holding up all his submarine plunder to the little fellow.
"Now then, your turn!" he ordered in an imperious tone.
All attempts at resistance were useless. His uncle either insulted him with the harshest kind of words or coaxed him with promises of safety. He never knew certainly whether he threw himself into the water or whether a tug from the doctor jerked him from the boat. The first surprise having passed, he had the impression of remembering some long forgotten thing. He was swimming instinctively, divining what he ought to do before his master told him. Within him was awakening the ancestral experience of a race of sailors who had struggled with the sea and, sometimes, had remained forever in its bosom.
Recollection of what was existing beyond his feet suddenly made him lose his serenity,—his lively imagination making him shriek,
And he clutched convulsively at the hard island of bearded and smiling muscles. His uncle came up immovable, as though his feet of stone were fastened to the bottom of the ocean. He was like the nearby promontory that was darkening and chilling the water with its ebony shadow.
Thus would slip by the mornings devoted to fishing and swimming; then in the afternoons there were tramps over the steep shores of the coast.
The Dotor knew the heights of the promontory as well as its depths. Up the pathways of the wild goat they clambered to its peaks in order to get a view of the Island of Ibiza. At sunset the distant Balearic Islands appeared like a rose-colored flame rising out of the waves. At other times the cronies made trips along the water's edge, and the Triton would show his nephew hidden caves into which the Mediterranean was working its way with slow undulations. These were like maritime roadsteads where boats might anchor completely concealed from view. There the galleys of the Berbers had often hidden, in order to fall unexpectedly upon a nearby village.
In one of these caves, on a rocky pedestal, Ulysses often saw a heap of bundles.
"Well, now, what of it!" expostulated the doctor. "Every man must gain his living as best he can."
When they stumbled upon a solitary custom house officer resting upon his gun and looking out toward the sea, the doctor would offer him a cigar and give him medical advice if he were sick. "Poor men! so badly paid!"... But his sympathies were always going out to the others—to the enemies of the law. He was the son of his sea, and in the make-up of all Mediterranean heroes and sailors there had always been something of the pirate or smuggler. The Phoenicians, who by their navigation spread abroad the first works of civilization, instituted this service, reaping their reward by filling their barks with stolen women, rich merchandise of easy transportation.
Piracy and smuggling had formed the historic past of all the villages that Ulysses was visiting, some huddled in the shelter of the promontory crowned with a lighthouse, others opening on the concavity of a bay dotted with barren islands girdled with foam. The old churches had turrets on their walls and loopholes in their doors for shooting with culverins and blunderbusses. The entire neighborhood used to take refuge in them when the smoke columns from their watchmen would warn them of the landing of pirates from Algiers. Following the curvings of the promontory there was a dotted line of reddish towers, each one accompanied by a smaller pair for lookouts. This line extended along the south toward the Straits of Gibraltar, and on its northern side reached to France.
The doctor had seen their counterpart in all the islands of the western Mediterranean, on the coasts of Naples and in Sicily. They were the fortifications of a thousand-year war, of a struggle ten centuries long between Moors and Christians for the domination of the blue sea, a struggle of piracy in which the Mediterranean men—differentiated by religion, but identical at heart—had prolonged the adventures of the Odyssey down to the beginnings of the nineteenth century.
Ferragut gradually became acquainted with many old men of the village who in their youth had been slaves in Algiers. On winter evenings the oldest of them were still singing romances of captivity and speaking with terror of the Berber brigantines. These thieves of the sea must have had a pact with the devil, who notified them of opportune occasions. If in a convent some beautiful novices had just made their profession, the doors would give away at midnight under the hatchet-blows of the bearded demons who were advancing inland from the galleys prepared to receive their cargo of feminine freight. If a girl of the coast, celebrated for her beauty, was going to be married, the infidels, lying in wait, would surround the door of the church, shooting their blunderbusses and knifing the unarmed men as they came out, in order to carry away the women in their festal robes.
On all the coast, the pirates stood in awe only of the navigators from the Marina, so fearless and warlike were they. If their villages were ever attacked, it was because their seafaring defenders were on the Mediterranean and, in their turn, had gone to sack and burn some village on the coast of Africa.
The Triton and his nephew used to eat their supper under the arbor in the long summer twilights. After the cloth was removed Ulysses would manipulate his grandfather's little frigates, learning the technical parts and names of the different apparatus, and the management of the sets of sails. Sometimes the two would stay out on the rustic porch until a late hour gazing out over the luminous sea sparkling under the splendor of the moon, or streaked with a slender wake of starry light in the murky nights.
All that mankind had ever written or dreamed about the Mediterranean, the doctor had in his library and could repeat to his eager little listener. In Ferragut's estimation the mare nostrum ["Mare Nostrum" (Our Sea), the classic name for the Mediterranean.] was a species of blue beast, powerful and of great intelligence—a sacred animal like the dragons and serpents that certain religions adored, believing them to be the source of life. The rivers that threw themselves impetuously into its bosom in order to renew it were few and scanty. The Rhone and the Nile appeared to be pitiful little rivulets compared with the river courses of other continents that empty into the oceans.
Losing by evaporation three times more liquid than the rivers bring to it, this sunburnt sea would soon have been converted into a great salt desert were not the Atlantic sending it a rapid current of renewal that was precipitated through the Straits of Gibraltar. Under this superficial current existed still another, flowing in an opposite direction, that returned a part of the Mediterranean to the ocean, because the Mediterranean waters were more salt and dense than those of the Atlantic. The tide scarcely made itself felt on its strands. Its basin was mined by subterranean fires that were always seeking extraordinary outlets through Vesuvius and Aetna and breathed continually through the mouth of Stromboli. Sometimes these Plutonic ebullitions would come to the surface, making new islands rise up upon the waters like tumors of lava.
In its bosom exist still double the quantity of animal species that abound in other seas, although less numerous. The tunny fish, playful lambs of the blue pasture lands, were gamboling over its surface or passing in schools under the furrows of the waves. Men were setting netted traps for them along the coasts of Spain and France, in Sardinia, the Straits of Messina and the waters of the Adriatic. But this wholesale slaughter scarcely lessened the compact, fishy squadrons. After wandering through the windings of the Grecian Archipelago, they passed the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus, stirring the two narrow passageways with the violence of their invisible gallopade and making a turn at the bowl of the Black Sea, swimming back, decimated but impetuous, to the depths of the Mediterranean.
Red coral was forming immovable groves on the substrata of the Balearic Islands, and on the coasts of Naples and Africa. Ambergris was constantly being found on the steep shores of Sicily. Sponges were growing in the tranquil waters in the shadow of the great rocks of Mallorca and the Isles of Greece. Naked men without any equipment whatever, holding their breath, were still descending to the bottom as in primitive times, in order to snatch these treasures away.
The doctor gave up his geographic descriptions to discourse on the history of his sea, which had indeed been the history of civilization, and was more fascinating to him. At first miserable and scanty tribes had wandered along its coasts seeking their food from the crustaceans drawn from the waves—a life similar to that of the rudimentary people that Ferragut had seen in the islands of the Pacific. When stone saws had hollowed out the trunks of trees and human arms had ventured to spread the first rawhides to the forces of the atmosphere, the coasts became rapidly populated.
Temples were constructed on the promontories, and maritime cities—the first nuclei of modern civilization—came into existence. On this landlocked sea mankind had learned the art of navigation. Every one looked at the waves before looking at the sky. Over this blue highway had arrived the miracles of life, and out of its depths the gods were born. The Phoenicians—Jews, become navigators—abandoned their cities in the depths of the Mediterranean sack, in order to spread the mysterious knowledge of Egypt and the Asiatic monarchies all along the shores of the interior sea. Afterwards the Greeks of the maritime republics took their places.
In Ferragut's estimation the greatest honor to which Athens could lay claim was that she had been a democracy of sailors, her freemen serving their country as rowers and all her famous men as great marine officials.
"Themistocles and Pericles," he added, "were admirals of fleets, and after commanding ships, governed their country."
On that account Grecian civilization had spread itself everywhere and had become immortal instead of lessening and disappearing without fruit as in the interior lands. Then Rome, terrestrial Rome, in order to hold its own against the superiority of the Semitic navigators of Carthage, had to teach the management of the oar and marine combat to the inhabitants of Latium, to their legionaries with faces hardened by the chin straps of their helmets, who did not know how to adjust their world-dominating iron-shod feet to the slippery planks of a vessel.
The divinities of mare nostrum always inspired a most loving devotion in the doctor. He knew that they had not existed, but he, nevertheless, believed in them as poetic phantasms of natural forces.
The ancient world only knew the immense ocean in hypothesis, giving it the form of an aquatic girdle around the earth. Oceanus was an old god with a long beard and horned head who lived in a maritime cavern with his wife, Tethys, and his three hundred daughters, the Oceanides. No Argonaut had ever dared to come in contact with these mysterious divinities. Only the grave Aeschylus had dared to portray the Oceanides—virgins fresh and demure, weeping around the rock to which Prometheus was bound.
Other more approachable deities were those of the eternal sea on whose borders were founded the opulent cities of the Syrian coast; the Egyptian cities that sent sparks of their ritual civilization to Greece; the Hellenic cities, hearths of clear fire that had fused all knowledge, giving it eternal form; Rome, mistress of the world; Carthage, famed for her audacious geographical discoveries, and Marseilles, which had made western Europe share in the civilization of the Greeks, scattering it along the lower coast from settlement to settlement, even to the Straits of Cadiz.
A brother of the Oceanides, the prudent Nereus, used to reign in the depths of the Mediterranean. This son of Oceanus had a blue beard, green eyes, and bunches of sea rushes on his eyebrows and breast. His fifty daughters, the Nereids, bore his orders across the waves or frolicked around the ships, splashing in the faces of the rowers the foam tossed up by their arms. But the sons of Father Time, on conquering the giant, had reapportioned the world, determining its rulers by lot. Zeus remained lord of the land, the obscure Hades, lord of the underworld, reigned in the Plutonic abysses, and Poseidon became master of the blue surfaces.
Nereus, the dispossessed monarch, fled to a cavern of the Hellenic sea in order to live the calm existence of the philosopher-counselor of mankind, and Poseidon installed himself in the mother-of-pearl palaces with his white steeds tossing helmets of bronze and manes of gold.
His amorous eyes were fixed on the fifty Mediterranean princesses, the Nereids, who took their names from the aspect of the waves—the Blue, the Green, the Swift, the Gentle.... "Nymphs of the green abysses with faces fresh as a rosebud, fragrant virgins that took the forms of all the monsters of the deep," sang the Orphic hymn on the Grecian shore. And Poseidon singled out among them all the Nereid of the Foam, the white Amphitrite who refused to accept his love.
She knew about this new god. The coasts were peopled with cyclops like Polyphemus, with frightful monsters born of the union of Olympian goddesses and simple mortals; but an obliging dolphin came and went, carrying messages between Poseidon and the Nereid, until, overwhelmed by the eloquence of this restless rover of the wave, Amphitrite agreed to become the wife of the god, and the Mediterranean appeared to take on still greater beauty.
She was the aurora that shows her rosy finger-tips through the immense cleft between sky and sea, the warm hour of midday that makes the waters drowsy under its robe of restless gold, the bifurcated tongue of foam that laps the two faces of the hissing prow, the aroma-laden breeze that like a virgin's breath swells the sail, the compassionate kiss that lulls the drowned to rest, without wrath and without resistance, before sinking forever into the fathomless abyss.
Her husband—Poseidon on the Greek coast and Neptune on the Latin—on mounting his chariot, used to awaken the tempest. The brazen-hoofed horses with their stamping would paw up the huge waves and swallow up the ships. The tritons of his cortege would send forth from their white shells the bellowing blasts that snap off the masts like reeds.
O, mater Amphitrite!... and Ferragut would describe her as though she were just passing before his eyes. Sometimes when swimming around the promontories, feeling himself enveloped like primitive man in the blind forces of Nature, he used to believe that he saw the white goddess issuing forth from the rocks with all her smiling train after a rest in some marine cave.
A shell of pearl was her chariot and six dolphins harnessed with purpling coral used to draw it along. The tritons, her sons, handled the reins. The Naiads, their sisters, lashed the sea with their scaly tails, lifting their mermaid bodies wrapped in the magnificence of their sea-green tresses between whose ringlets might be seen their heaving bosoms. White seagulls, cooing like the doves of Aphrodite, fluttered around their nude sea-queen, serenely contemplating them from her movable throne, crowned with pearls and phosphorescent stars drawn from the depths of her dominion. White as the cloud, white as the sail, white as the foam, entirely, dazzlingly white was her fair majesty except where a rosy blush tinted the petal-like skin of her heels or her bosom.
The entire history of European man—forty centuries of wars, emigrations, and racial impact—was due, according to the doctor, to the desire of possessing this harmoniously framed sea, of enjoying the transparency of its atmosphere and the vivacity of its light.
The men from the North who needed the burning log and alcoholic drink in order to defend their life from the clutches of the cold, were always thinking of these Mediterranean shores. All their warlike or pacific movements were with intent to descend from the coasts of the glacial seas to the beaches of the warm mare nostrum. They were eager to gain possession of the country where the sacred olive alternates its stiff old age with the joyous vineyard; where the pine rears its cupola and the cypress erects its minaret. They longed to dream under the perfumed snow of the interminable orange groves; to be masters of the sheltered valleys where the myrtle and the jasmine spice the salty air; where the aloe and the cactus grow between the stones of extinct volcanoes; where the mountains of marble extend their white veins down even into the depths of the sea and refract the African heat emitted by the opposite coast.
The South had replied to the invasion from the North with defensive wars that had extended even into the center of Europe. And thus history had gone on repeating itself with the same flux and reflux of human waves—mankind struggling for thousands of years to gain or hold the blue vault of Amphitrite.
The Mediterranean peoples were to Ferragut the aristocracy of humanity. Its potent climate had tempered mankind as in no other part of the planet, giving him a dry and resilient power. Tanned and bronzed by the profound absorption of the sun and the energy of the atmosphere, its navigators were transmuted into pure metal. The men from the North were stronger, but less robust, less acclimitable than the Catalan sailor, the Provencal, the Genoese or the Greek. The sailors of the Mediterranean made themselves at home in all parts of the world. Upon their sea man had developed his highest energies. Ancient Greece had converted human flesh into spiritual steel.
Exactly the same landscapes and races bordered the two shores. The mountains and the flowers on both shores were identical. The Catalan, the Provencal and the South Italian were more like the inhabitants of the African coast than their kindred who lived inland back of them. This fraternity had shown itself instinctively in the thousand-year war. The Berber pirates, the Genoese sailors, the Spaniards, and the Knights of Malta used implacably to behead each other on the decks of their galleys and, upon becoming conquerors, would respect the life of their prisoners, treating them like gentlemen. The Admiral Barbarossa, eighty-four years of age, used to call Doria, his eternal rival nearly ninety years old, "my brother." The Grand Master of Malta clasped the hand of the terrible Dragut upon finding him his captive.
The Mediterranean man, fixed on the shores that gave him birth, was accustomed to accept all the changes of history, as the mollusks fastened to the rocks endure the tempests. For him the only important thing was not to lose sight of his blue sea. The Spaniard used to pull an oar on the Liburnian felucca, the Christian would join the crews of the Saracen ships of the Middle Ages; the subjects of Charles V would pass through the fortunes of war from the galleys of the Cross to those of the Crescent, and would end by becoming rulers of Algiers, rich captains of the sea, or by making their names famous as renegades.
In the eighth century the inhabitants of the Valencian coast united with the Andalusian Moors to carry the war to the ends of the Mediterranean and to the island of Crete, taking possession of it and giving it the name of Candia. This nest of pirates was the terror of Byzantium, taking Salonica by assault and selling as slaves the patricians and most important ladies of the realm. Years afterwards, when dislodged from Candia, the Valencian adventurers returned to their native shores and there established a town in a fertile valley, giving it the name of the distant island which was changed to Gandia.
Every type of human vigor had sprung from the Mediterranean race,—fine, sharp and dry as flint, doing good and evil on a large scale with the exaggeration of an ardent character that discounts halfway measures and leaps from duplicity to the greatest extremes of generosity. Ulysses was the father of them all, a discreet and prudent hero, yet at the same time complex and malicious. So was old Cadmus with his Phoenician miter and curled beard, a great old sea-wolf, scattering by means of his various adventures the art of writing and the first notions of commerce.
In one of the Mediterranean islands Hannibal was born, and twenty centuries after, in another of them, the son of a lawyer without briefs embarked for France, with no other outfit than his cadet's uniform, in order to make famous his name of Napoleon.
Over the Mediterranean waves had sailed Roger de Lauria, knight-errant of vast tracts of sea, who wished to clothe even the fishes with the colors of Aragon. A visionary of obscure origin named Columbus had recognized as his country the republic of Genoa. A smuggler from the coasts of Laguria came to be Messina, the marshal beloved by Victory, and the last personage of this stock of Mediterranean heroes associated with the heroes of fabulous times was a sailor from Nice, simple and romantic, a warrior called Garibaldi, an heroic tenor of all seas and lands who cast over his century the reflection of his red shirt, repeating on the coast of Marseilles the remote epic of the Argonauts.
Then Ferragut summed up the various defects of his race. Some had been bandits and others saints, but none mediocre. Their most audacious undertakings had much about them that was prudent and practical. When they devoted themselves to business they were at the same time serving civilization. In them the hero and the trader were so intermingled that it was impossible to discern where one ended and the other began. They had been pirates and cruel men, but the navigators from the foggy seas when imitating the Mediterranean discoveries in other continents had not shown themselves any more gentle or loyal.
After these conversations, Ulysses felt greater esteem for the old pottery and the shabby little figures that adorned his uncle's bedroom.
They were objects vomited up by the sea, Grecian amphoras wrested from the shells of mollusks after a submarine interment centuries long. The deep waters had embossed these petrified ornaments with strange arabesques that made one think of the art of another planet, and, twined in with the pottery that had held the wine and water of a shipwrecked Liburnian felucca, were bits of rope hardened by limey deposit and flukes of anchors whose metal was disintegrating into reddish scales. Various little statues corroded by the salt sea inspired in the boy as much admiration as his grandfather's frigates. He laughed and trembled before these Cabiri coming from the Phoenician or Carthaginian biremes,—grotesque and terrible gods that contracted their faces with grimaces of lust and ferocity.
Some of these muscular and bearded marine divinities bore a remote resemblance to his uncle. Ulysses had overheard certain strange conversations among the fishermen and had noticed, besides, the precipitation of the women and their uneasy glances when they found the doctor near them in a solitary part of the coast. Only the presence of his nephew had made them recover tranquility and check their step.
At times the sea seemed to craze him with gusts of amorous fury. He was Poseidon rising up unexpectedly on the banks in order to surprise goddesses and mortals. The women of the Marina ran away as terrified as those Greek princesses on the painted vases when surprised, washing their robes, by the apparition of a passionate triton.
Some nights at the hour when the lighthouses were beginning to pierce the coming dusk with their fresh shafts of light, he would become melancholy and, forgetting the difference in their age, would talk with his nephew as though he were a sailor companion.
He regretted never having married.... He might have had a son by this time. He had known many women of all colors—white, red, yellow, and bronze—but only once had he really been in love, very far away on the other side of the planet, in the port of Valparaiso.
He could still see in imagination a certain graceful Chilean maiden, wrapped in her great black veil like the ladies of the Calderonian theater, showing only one of her dark and liquid eyes, pale and slender, speaking in a plaintive voice.
She enjoyed love-songs, always provided that they were sung "with great sadness"; and Ferragut would devour her with his eyes while she plucked the guitar, chanting the song of Malek-Adhel and other romances about "Roses, sighs and Moors of Granada," that from childhood the doctor had heard sung by the Berbers of his country. The simple attempt at taking one of her hands always provoked her modest resistance.... "That, then...." She was ready to marry him; she wished to see Spain.... And the doctor might have fulfilled her wishes had not a good soul informed him that in later hours of the night, others were accustomed to come in turns to hear her romantic solos.... Ah, these women! and then, on recalling the finale of his trans-oceanic idyl, Ferragut would become reconciled to his celibacy.
Late in the Fall the notary had to go in person to the Marina to make his brother give Ulysses up. The boy held the same opinion as did his uncle. The very idea of losing the winter fishing, the cold sunny morning, the spectacle of the great tempests, just for the silly reason that the Institute had commenced, and he must study for his bachelor's degree!...