HotFreeBooks.com
The Quest
by Pio Baroja
1  2  3  4  5     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

THE QUEST

BY PIO BAROJA

TRANSLATED FROM THE SPANISH By ISAAC GOLDBERG



CONTENTS

PART ONE

I Preamble—Somewhat Immoral Notions of a Boarding-House Keeper—A Balcony is Heard Closing—A Cricket Chirps

II Dona Casiana's House—A Morning Ceremony—Conspiracy—Wherein is Discussed The Nutritive Value of Bones—Petra and Her Family—Manuel; his Arrival in Madrid

III First Impressions of Madrid—The Boarders—Idyll—Sweet and Delightful Lessons

IV Oh, Love, Love!—What's Don Telmo Doing?—Who is Don Telmo?—Wherein the Student and Don Telmo Assume Certain Novelesque Proportions

PART TWO

I "The Regeneration of Footgear" and "The Lion of the Bootmaker's Art"—The First Sunday—An Escapade—El Bizco and his Gang

II The "Big Yard" or Uncle Rilo's House—Local Enmities

III Roberto Hastings at the Shoemaker's—The Procession of Beggars—Court of Miracles

IV Life in the Cobbler's Shop—Manuel's Friends

V La Blasa's Tavern

VI Roberto in Quest of a Woman—El Tabuenca and his Inventions—Don Alonso or the Snake-Man

VII The Kermesse on Pasion Street—"The Dude"—A Cafe Chantant

VIII Leandro's Irresolution—In La Blasa's Tavern—The Man with the Three Cards—The Duel with Valencia

IX An Unlikely Tale—Manuel's Sisters—Life's Baffling Problems

PART THREE

I Uncle Patas' Domestic Drama—The Bakery—Karl the Baker—The Society of the Three

II One of the Many Disagreeable Ways of Dying in Madrid—The Orphan—El Cojo and his Cave—Night in the Observatory

III Meeting with Roberto—Roberto Narrates the Origin of a Fantastic Fortune

IV Dolores the Scandalous—Pastiri's Tricks—Tender Savagery—A Modest Out-of-the-way Robbery

V Gutter Vestals—The Troglodites

VI Senor Custodio and his Establishment—The Free Life

VII Senor Custodio's Ideas—La Justa, el Carnicerin and El Conejo

VIII The Square—A Wedding in La Bombilla—The Asphalt Caldrons



PART ONE



CHAPTER I

Preamble—Somewhat Immoral Notions of a Boarding-House Keeper—A Balcony Is Heard Closing—A Cricket Chirps.

The clock in the corridor had just struck twelve, in a leisurely, rhythmic, decorous manner. It was the habit of that tall old narrow-cased clock to accelerate or retard, after its own sweet taste and whim, the uniform and monotonous series of hours that encircle our life until it wraps it and leaves it, like an infant in its crib, in the obscure bosom of time.

Soon after this friendly indication of the old clock, uttered in a solemn, peaceful voice becoming an aged person, the hour of eleven rang out in a shrill, grotesque fashion, with juvenile impertinence, from a petulant little clock of the vicinity, and a few minutes later, to add to the confusion and the chronometric disorder, the bell of a neighbouring church gave a single long, sonorous stroke that quivered for several seconds in the silent atmosphere.

Which of the three clocks was correct? Which of those three devices for the mensuration of time was the most exact in its indications?

The author cannot say, and he regrets it. He, regrets it, because Time, according to certain solemn philosophers, is the canvas background against which we embroider the follies of our existence, and truly it is little scientific not to be able to indicate at precisely which moment the canvas of this book begins. But the author does not know; all he can say is, that at that moment the steeds of night had for an appreciable time been coursing across the heavens. It was, then, the hour of mystery; the hour when wicked folk stalk abroad; the hour in which the poet dreams of immortality, rhyming hijos with prolijos and amor with dolor; the hour in which the night-walker slinks forth from her lair and the gambler enters his; the hour of adventures that are sought and never found; the hour, finally, of the chaste virgin's dreams and of the venerable old man's rheumatism. And as this romantic hour glided on, the shouts and songs and quarrels of the street subsided; the lights in the balconies were extinguished; the shopkeepers and janitors drew in their chairs from the gutter to surrender themselves to the arms of sleep.

In the chaste, pure dwelling of Dona Casiana the boarding-house keeper, idyllic silence had reigned for some time. Only through the balcony windows, which were wide open, came the distant rumbling of carriages and the song of a neighbouring cricket who scratched with disagreeable persistency upon the strident string of his instrument.

At the hour, whatever it was, that was marked by the twelve slow, raucous snores of the corridor clock, there were in the house only an old gentleman,—an impenitent early-riser; the proprietress, Dona Casiana,—a landlady equally impenitent, to the misfortune of her boarders, and the servant Petra.

At this moment the landlady was asleep, seated upon the rocking-chair before the open balcony; Petra, in the kitchen, was likewise asleep, with her head resting against the window-frame, while the old early-rising gentleman amused himself by coughing in bed.

Petra had finished scouring and her drowsiness, the heat and fatigue had doubtless overcome her. She could be made out dimly in the light of the small lamp that hung by the hearth. She was a thin, scrawny woman, flat-chested, with lean arms, big red hands and skin of greyish hue. She slept seated upon a chair with her mouth open; her breathing was short and laboured.

At the strokes of the corridor clock she suddenly awoke; she shut the window, through which came a nauseating, stable-like odour from the milk-dairy on the ground-floor; she folded the clothes and left with a pile of dishes, depositing them upon the dining-room table; then she laid away in a closet the table-ware, the tablecloth and the left-over bread; she took down the lamp and entered the room in the balcony of which the landlady sat sleeping.

"Senora, senora!" she called, several times.

"Eh? What is it?" murmured Dona Casiana drowsily.

"Perhaps you wish something?"

"No, nothing. Oh, yes! Tell the baker tomorrow that I'll pay him the coming Monday."

"Very well. Good-night."

The servant was leaving the room, when the balconies of the house across the way lighted up. They opened wide and soon there came the strains of a tender prelude from a guitar.

"Petra! Petra!" cried Dona Casiana. "Come here. Eh? Over in that Isabel's house ... You can tell they have visitors."

The domestic went to the balcony and gazed indifferently at the house opposite.

"Now that's what pays," the landlady went on. "Not this nasty boarding-house business."

At this juncture there appeared in one of the balconies of the other house a woman wrapped in a flowing gown, with a red flower in her hair. A young man in evening dress, with swallow-tail coat and white vest, clasped her tightly about the waist.

"That's what pays," repeated the landlady several times.

This notion must have stirred her ill-humour, for she added in an irritated voice:

"Tomorrow I'll have some plain words with that priest and those gadabout daughters of Dona Violante, and all the rest who are behind in their payments. To think a woman should have to deal with such a tribe! No! They'll laugh no more at me! ..."

Petra, without offering a reply, said good-night again and left the room. Dona Casiana continued to grumble, then ensconced her rotund person in the rocker and dozed off into a dream about an establishment of the same type as that across the way; but a model establishment, with luxuriously appointed salons, whither trooped in a long procession all the scrofulous youths of the clubs and fraternities, mystic and mundane, in such numbers that she was compelled to install a ticket-office at the entrance.

While the landlady lulled her fancy in this sweet vision of a brothel de luxe, Petra entered a dingy little room that was cluttered with old furniture. She set the light upon a chair, and placed a greasy box of matches on the top of the container; she read for a moment out of a filthy, begrimed devotionary printed in large type; she repeated several prayers with her eyes raised to the ceiling, then began to undress. The night was stifling; in that hole the heat was horrible. Petra got into bed, crossed herself, put out the lamp, which smoked for a long time, stretched herself out and laid her head upon the pillow. A worm in one of the pieces of furniture made the wood crack at regular intervals.

Petra slept soundly for a couple of hours, then awoke stifling from the heat. Somebody had just opened the door and footsteps were heard in the entry.

"That's Dona Violante and her daughters," mumbled Petra. "It must be pretty late."

The three women were probably returning from los Jardines, after having supped in search of the pesetas necessary to existence. Luck must have withheld its favour, for they were in bad humour and the two young women were quarrelling, each blaming the other for having wasted the night.

There were a number of venomous, ironic phrases, then the dispute ceased and silence was restored. Petra, thus kept awake, sank into her own thoughts; again footfalls were heard in the corridor, this time light and rapid. Then came the rasping of the shutter-bolt of a balcony that was being opened cautiously.

"One of them has got up," thought Petra. "What can the fuss be now?"

In a few minutes the voice of the landlady was heard shouting imperiously from her room:

"Irene! ... Irene!"

"Well?"

"Come in from the balcony."

"And why do I got to come in?" replied a harsh voice in rough, ill-pronounced accents.

"Because you must ... That's why."

"Why, what am I doing in the balcony?"

"That's something you know better than I."

"Well, I don't know."

"Well, I do."

"I was taking the fresh air."

"I guess you're fresh enough."

"You mean you are, senora."

"Close the balcony. You imagine that this house is something else."

"I? What have I done?"

"I don't have to tell you. For that sort of thing there's the house across the way, across the way."

"She means Isabel's," thought Petra.

The balcony was heard to shut suddenly; steps echoed in the entry, followed by the slamming of a door. For a long time the landlady continued her grumbling; soon came the murmuring of a conversation carried on in low tones. Then nothing more was heard save the persistent shrilling of the neighbouring cricket, who continued to scrape away at his disagreeable instrument with the determination of a beginner on the violin.



CHAPTER II

Dona Casiana's House—A Morning Ceremony—Conspiracy—Wherein Is Discussed the Nutritive Value of Bones—Petra and her Family—Manuel; his arrival in Madrid.

... And the cricket, now like an obstinate virtuoso, persisted in his musical exercises, which were truly somewhat monotonous, until the sky was brightened by the placid smile of dawn. At the very first rays of the sun the performer relented, doubtless content with the perfection of his artistic efforts, and a quail took up his solo, giving the three regulation strokes. The watchman knocked with his pike at the stores, one or two bakers passed with their bread, a shop was opened, then another, then a vestibule; a servant threw some refuse out on the sidewalk, a newsboy's calling was heard.

The author would be too bold if he tried to demonstrate the mathematical necessity imposed upon Dona Casiana's house of being situated on Mesonero Romanos Street rather than upon Olivo, for, undoubtedly, with the same reason it might have been placed upon Desengano, Tudescos or any other thoroughfare. But the duties of the author, his obligation as an impartial and veracious chronicler compel him to speak the truth, and the truth is that the house was on Mesonero Romanos Street rather than on Olivo.

At this early hour not a sound could be heard inside; the janitor had opened the vestibule-entrance and was regarding the street with a certain melancholy.

The vestibule,—long, dingy, and ill-smelling,—was really a narrow corridor, at one side of which was the janitor's lodge.

On passing this lodge, if you glanced inside, where it was encumbered with furniture till no room was left, you could always make out a fat woman, motionless, very swarthy, in whose arms reposed a pale weakling of a child, long and thin, like a white earthworm. It seemed that above the window, instead of "Janitor" the legend should have read: "The Woman-Cannon and her Child," or some similar sign from the circus tents.

If any question were addressed to this voluminous female she would answer in a shrill voice accompanied by a rather disagreeable gesture of disdain. Leaving the den of this woman-cannon to one side, you would proceed; at the left of the entrance began the staircase, always in darkness, with no air except what filtered in through a few high, grated windows that opened upon a diminutive courtyard with filthy walls punctured by round ventilators. For a broad, roomy nose endowed with a keen pituitary membrane, it would have been a curious sport to discover and investigate the provenience and the species of all the vile odours comprising that fetid stench, which was an inalienable characteristic of the establishment.

The author never succeeded in making the acquaintance of the persons living upon the upper floors. He has a vague notion that there were two or three landladies, a family who let out rooms to permanent gentlemen boarders, but nothing else. Wherefore the author does not climb those heights but pauses upon the first landing.

Here, at least by day, could be made out in the reigning darkness, a tiny door; at night, on the other hand, by the light of a kerosene lantern one could glimpse a tin door-plate painted red, upon which was inscribed in black letters: "Casiana Fernandez."

At one side of the door hung a length of blackish rusted chain that could be reached only by standing on tiptoe and stretching out one's arm; but as the door was always ajar, the lodgers could come and go without the need of knocking.

This led to the house. By day, one was plunged into utter obscurity; the sole thing that indicated a change of place was the smell, not so much because it was more agreeable than that of the staircase, as because it was distinct; on the contrary, at night, in the vague light shed by a cork night-taper afloat in the water and oil of a bowl that was attached to the wall by a brass ring, there could be seen through a certain dim nebulosity, the furniture, the pictures and the other paraphernalia that occupied the reception hall.

Facing the entrance stood a broad, solid table on which reposed an old-fashioned music-box consisting of several cylinders that bristled with pins; close beside it, a plaster statue: a begrimed figure lacking a nose, and difficult to distinguish as some god, half-god or mortal.

On the wall of the reception room and of the corridor hung some large, indistinct oil paintings. A person of intelligence would perhaps have considered them detestable, but the landlady, who imagined that a very obscure painting must be very good, refreshed herself betimes with the thought that mayhap these pictures, sold to an Englishman, would, one day make her independent.

There were several canvases in which the artist had depicted horrifying biblical scenes: massacres, devastation, revolting plagues; but all this in such a manner, that, despite the painter's lavish distribution of blood, wounds and severed heads, these canvases instead of horrifying, produced an impression of merriment. One of them represented the daughter of Herodias contemplating the head of St. John the Baptist. Every figure expressed amiable joviality: the monarch, with the indumentary of a card-pack king and in the posture of a card-player, was smiling; his daughter, a florid-face dame, was smiling; the familiars, encased in their huge helmets, were smiling, and the very head of St. John the Baptist was smiling from its place upon a repousse platter. Doubtless the artist of these paintings, if he lacked the gift of design and colour, was endowed with that of joviality.

To the right and left of the house door ran the corridor, from whose walls hung another exhibit of black canvases, most of them unframed, in which could be made out absolutely nothing; only in one of them, after very patient scrutiny, one might guess at a red cock pecking at the leaves of a green cabbage.

Upon this corridor opened the bedrooms, in which, until very late in the afternoon, dirty socks and torn slippers were usually seen strewn upon the floor, while on the unmade beds lay collars and cuffs.

Almost all the boarders in that house got up late, except two travelling salesmen, a bookkeeper and a priest, who arose early through love of their occupations, and an old gentleman who did so through habit or for reasons of hygiene.

The bookkeeper would be off, without breakfast, at eight in the morning; the priest left in albis to say mass; but the salesmen had the audacious presumption to eat a bite in the house, and the landlady resorted to a very simple procedure to send them off without so much as a sip of water; these two agents began work between half-past nine and ten; they retired very late, bidding their landlady wake them at eight-thirty. She would see to it that they were not aroused until ten. When they awoke and saw the time, they would jump out of bed, hurriedly dress and dash off like a shot, cursing the landlady. Then, when the feminine element of the house gave signs of life, every nook would echo with cries, discordant voices, conversations shouted from one bedchamber to another, and out of the rooms, their hands armed with the night-service, would come the landlady, one of Dona Violante's daughters, a tall, obese Biscayan Lady, and another woman whom they called the Baroness.

The landlady invariably wore a corset-cover of yellow flannel, the Baroness a wrapper mottled with stains from cosmetics and the Biscayan lady a red waist through whose opening was regularly presented, for the admiration of those who happened along the corridor, a huge white udder streaked with coarse blue veins.

After this matutinal ceremony, and not infrequently during the same, complaints, disputes, gossip and strife would arise, providing tid-bits for the remaining hours.

On the day following the scrape between the landlady and Irene, when the latter returned to her room after having fulfilled her mission, a secret conclave was held by those who remained.

"Don't you know? Didn't you hear anything last night?" asked the Biscayan.

"No," replied the landlady and the Baroness. "What happened?"

"Irene smuggled a man into the house last night."

"She did?"

"I heard her talking to him myself."

"And he must have opened the street door! The dog!" muttered the landlady.

"No; the man came from this tenement."

"One of the students from upstairs," offered the Baroness.

"I'll tell a thing or two to the rascally fellow," replied Dona Casiana.

"No. Take your time," answered the Biscayan. "We're going to give her and her gallant a fright. If he comes tonight, while they're talking, we'll tell the watchman to knock at the house door, and at the same time we'll all come out of our rooms with lights, as if we were going to the dining-room, and catch them."

While this plot was being hatched in the corridor, Petra was preparing breakfast in the obscurity of the kitchen. There was very little to prepare, for the meal invariably consisted of a fried egg, which never by any accident was large, and a beefsteak, which, in memories reverting to the remotest epoch, had not a single time by any exception been soft.

At noon, the Biscayan, in tones of deep mystery, told Petra about the conspiracy, but the maid-of-all-work was in no mood for jests that day. She had just received a letter that filled her with worriment. Her brother-in-law wrote her that Manuel, the eldest of Petra's children, was being sent to Madrid. No lucid explanation of the reason for this decision was given. The letter stated simply that back there in the village the boy was only wasting his time, and that it would be better for him to go to Madrid and learn a trade.

This letter had set Petra thinking. After wiping the dishes, she washed herself in the kneeding-trough; she could not shake the fixed idea that if her brother-in-law was sending Manuel to her it was because the boy had been up to some mischief. She would soon find out, for he was due to arrive that night.

Petra had four children, two boys and two girls; the girls were well placed; the elder as a maid, with some very wealthy religious ladies, the younger in a government official's home.

The boys gave her more bother; the younger not so much, since, as they said, he continued to reveal a steady nature. The elder, however, was rebellious and intractable.

"He doesn't take after me," thought Petra. "In fact, he's quite like my husband."

And this disquieted her. Her husband, Manuel Alcazar, had been an energetic, powerful man, and, towards his last days, harsh-tempered and brutal.

He was a locomotive machinist and earned good pay. Petra and he could not get along together and the couple were always at blows.

Folks and friends alike blamed Alcazar the machinist for everything, as if the systematic contrariness of Petra, who seemed to enjoy nagging the man, were not enough to exasperate any one. Petra had always been that way,—wilful, behind the mask of humility, and as obstinate as a mule. As long as she could do as she pleased the rest mattered little.

While the machinist was alive, the family's economic situation had been relatively comfortable. Alcazar and Petra paid sixteen duros per month for their rooms on Relojo street, and took in boarders: a mail clerk and other railroad employes.

Their domestic existence might have been peaceful and pleasureful were it not for the daily altercations between husband and wife. They had both come to feel such a need for quarrelling that the most insignificant cause would lead to scandalous scenes. It was enough that he said white for her to cry black; this opposition infuriated the machinist, who would throw the dishes about, belabour his wife, and smash all the household furniture. Then Petra, satisfied that she had sufficient cause for affliction, shut herself in her room to weep and pray.

What with his alcohol, his fits of temper, and his hard work, the machinist went about half dazed; on one terribly hot day in August he fell from the train on to the roadbed and was found dead without a wound.

Petra, disregarding the advice of her boarders, insisted upon changing residence, as she disliked that section of the city. This she did, taking in new lodgers—unreliable, indigent folk who ran up large bills or never paid at all—and in a short time she found herself compelled to sell her furniture and abandon her new house.

Then she hired out her daughters as servants, sent her two boys off to a little town in the province of Soria, where her brother-in-law was the superintendent of a small railway station, and herself entered as a domestic in Dona Casiana's lodging-house. Thus she descended from mistress to servant, without complaint. It was enough that the idea had occurred to her; therefore it was best.

She had been there for two years, saving her pay. Her ambition was to have her sons study in a seminary and graduate as priests. And now came the return of Manuel, the elder son, to upset her plans. What could have happened?

She made various conjectures. In the meantime with her deformed hands she removed the lodgers' dirty laundry. In through the courtyard window wafted a confusion of songs and disputing voices, alternating with the screech of the clothes-line pulleys.

In the middle of the afternoon Petra began preparation for dinner. The mistress ordered every morning a huge quantity of bones for the sustenance of her boarders. It is very possible that there was, in all that heap of bones, a Christian one from time to time; certainly, whether they came from carnivorous animals or from ruminants, there was rarely on those tibiae, humeri, and femora a tiny scrap of meat. The ossuary boiled away in the huge pot with beans that had been tempered with bicarbonate, and with the broth was made the soup, which, thanks to its quantity of fat, seemed like some turbid concoction for cleaning glassware or polishing gilt.

After inspecting the state of the ossuary in the stew-pot, Petra made the soup, and then set about extracting all the scrap meat from the bones and covering them hypocritically with a tomato sauce. This was the piece de resistance in Dona Casiana's establishment.

Thanks to this hygienic regimen, none of the boarders fell ill with obesity, gout or any of those other ailments due to excess of food and so frequent in the rich.

After preparing the meal and serving it, Petra postponed the dish-washing, and left the house to meet her son.

Night had not yet fallen. The sky was vaguely red, the air stifling, heavy with a dense mist of dust and steam. Petra went up Carretas Street, continued through Atocha, entered the Estacion del Mediodia and sat down on a bench to wait for Manuel....

Meanwhile, the boy was approaching the city half asleep, half asphyxiated, in a third-class compartment.

He had taken the train the night before at the railway station where his uncle was superintendent. On reaching Almazan, he had to wait more than an hour for a mixed train, so he sauntered through the deserted streets to kill time.

To Manuel, Almazan seemed vast, infinitely sad; the town, glimpsed through the gloom of a dimly starlit night, loomed like a great, fanastic, dead city. The pale electric lights shone upon its narrow streets and low houses; the spacious plaza with its arc lights was deserted; the belfry of a church rose into the heavens.

Manuel strolled down towards the river. From the bridge the town seemed more fantastic and mysterious than ever; upon a wall might be made out the galleries of a palace, and several lofty, sombre towers shot up from amidst the jumbled dwellings of the town; a strip of moon gleamed close to the horizon, and the river, divided by a few islets into arms, glittered as if it were mercury.

Manuel left Almazanhad to wait a few hours in Alcuneza for the next train. He was weary, and as there were no benches in the station, he stretched himself out upon the floor amidst bundles and skins of oil.

At dawn he boarded the other train, and despite the hardness of the seat, managed to fall asleep.

Manuel had been two years with his relatives; he departed from their home with more satisfaction than regret.

Life had held no pleasure for him during those two years.

The tiny station presided over by his uncle was near a poor hamlet surrounded by arid, stony tracts upon which grew neither tree nor bush. A Siberian temperature reigned in those parts, but the inclemencies of Nature were nothing to bother a little boy, and gave Manuel not the slightest concern.

The worst of it all was that neither his uncle nor his uncle's wife showed any affection for him, rather indifference, and this indifference prepared the boy to receive their few benefactions with utter coldness.

It was different with Manuel's brother, to whom the couple gradually took a liking.

The two youngsters displayed traits almost absolutely opposite; the elder, Manuel, was of a frivolous, slothful, indolent disposition, and would neither study nor go to school. He was fond of romping about the fields and engaging in bold, dangerous escapades. The characteristic trait of Juan, the younger brother, was a morbid sentimentalism that would overflow in tears upon the slightest provocation.

Manuel recalled that the school master and town organist, an old fellow who was half dominie and taught the two brothers Latin, had always prophesied that Juan would make his mark; Manuel he considered as an adventure-seeking rover who would come to a bad end.

As Manuel dozed in the third-class compartment, a thousand recollections thronged his imagination: the events of the night before at his uncle's mingled in his mind with fleeting impressions of Madrid already half forgotten. One by one the sensations of distinct epochs intertwined themselves in his memory, without rhyme or reason and among them, in the phantasmagoria of near and distant images that rolled past his inner vision, there stood out clearly those sombre towers glimpsed by night in Almazan by the light of the moon....

When one of his travelling companions announced that they had already reached Madrid, Manuel was filled with genuine anxiety. A red dusk flushed the sky, which was streaked with blood like some monster's eye; the train gradually slackened speed; it glided through squalid suburbs and past wretched houses; by this time, the electric lights were gleaming pallidly above the high signal lanterns....

The train rolled on between long lines of coaches, the round-tables trembled with an iron rumble, and the Estacion del Mediodia, illuminated by arc lamps, came into view.

The travellers got out; Manuel descended with his little bundle of clothes in his hand, looked in every direction for a glimpse of his mother and could not make her out anywhere on the wide platform. For a moment he was confused, then decided to follow the throng that was hurrying with bundles and bird-cages toward a gate; he was asked for his ticket, he stopped to go through his pockets, found it and issued into the street between two rows of porters who were yelling the names of hotels.

"Manuel! Where are you going?"

There was his mother. Petra had meant to be severe; but at the sight of her son she forgot her severity and embraced him effusively.

"But—what happened?" Petra asked at once.

"Nothing."

"Then—why have you come?"

"They asked me whether I wanted to stay there or go to Madrid, and I said I'd rather go to Madrid."

"Nothing more?"

"Nothing more," replied Manuel simply.

"And Juan? Was he studying?"

"Yes. Much more than I was. Is the house far off, Mother?"

"Yes, Why? Are you hungry?"

"I should say. I haven't had a bite all the way."

They left the Station at the Prado; then they walked up Alcala street. A dusty mist quivered in the air; the street-lamp shone opaquely in the turbid atmosphere.... As soon as they reached the house Petra made supper for Manuel and prepared a bed for him upon the floor, beside her own. The youth lay down, but so violent was the contrast between the hamlet's silence and the racket of footsteps, conversations and cries that resounded through the house, that, despite his weariness, Manuel could not sleep.

He heard every lodger come in; it was past midnight when the disturbance quieted down; suddenly a squabble burst out followed by a crash of laughter which ended in a triply blasphemous imprecation and a slap that woke the echoes.

"What can that be, Mother?" asked Manuel from his bed.

"That's Dona Violante's daughter whom they've caught with her sweetheart," Petra answered, half from her sleep. Then it occurred to her that it was imprudent to tell this to her boy, and she added, gruffly:

"Shut up and go to sleep."

The music-box in the reception-room, set going by the hand of one of the boarders, commenced to tinkle that sentimental air from La Mascotte,—the duet between Pippo and Bettina:

Will you forget me, gentle swain?

Then all was silent.



CHAPTER III

First Impressions of Madrid—The Boarders—Idyll—Sweet and Delightful Lessons.

Manuel's mother had a relation, her husband's cousin, who was a cobbler. Petra had decided, some days previously, to give Manuel into apprenticeship at the shoe-shop; but she still hoped the boy would be convinced that it was better for him to study something than to learn a trade, and this hope had deterred her from the resolution to send the boy to her relative's house.

Persuading the landlady to permit Manuel to remain in the house cost Petra no little labour, but at last she succeeded. It was agreed that the boy would run errands and help to serve meals. Then when the vacation season had passed, he would resume his studies.

On the day following his arrival the youngster assisted his mother at the table.

All the borders, except the Baroness and her girl, were seated in the dining-room, presided over by the landlady with her wrinkle-fretted, parchment-hued face and its thirty-odd moles.

The dining-room, a long, narrow habitation with a window opening on the courtyard, communicated with two narrow corridors that switched off at right angles; facing the window stood a dark walnut sideboard whose shelves were laden with porcelain, glassware and cups and glasses in a row. The centre table was so large for such a small room that when the boarders were seated it scarcely left space for passage at the ends.

The yellow wall-paper, torn in many spots, displayed, at intervals, grimy circles from the oil of the lodgers' hair; reclining in their seats they would rest the back of the chairs and their heads against the wall.

The furniture, the straw chairs, the paintings, the mat full of holes,—everything in that room was filthy, as if the dust of many years had settled upon the articles and clung to the sweat of several generations of lodgers.

By day the dining-room was dark; by night it was lighted by a flickering kerosene lamp that smudged the ceiling with smoke.

The first time that Manuel, following his mother's instructions, served at table, the landlady, as usual, presided. At her right sat an old gentleman of cadaverous aspect,—a very fastidious personage who conscientiously wiped the glasses and plates with his napkin. By his side this gentleman had a vial and a dropper, and before eating he would drop his medicine into the wine. To the left of the landlady rose the Biscayan, a tall, stout woman of bestial appearance, with a huge nose, thick lips and flaming cheeks; next to this lady, as flat as a toad, was Dona Violante, whom the boarders jestingly called now Dona Violent and now Dona Violated.

Near Dona Violante were grouped her daughters; then a priest who prattled incessantly, a journalist whom they called the Superman,—a very fair youth, exceedingly thin and exceedingly serious,—the salesmen and the bookkeeper.

Manuel served the soup and all the boarders took it, sipping it with a disagreeable inhalation. Then, according to his mother's orders, the youngster remained standing there. Now followed the beans which, if not for their size then for their hardness might have figured in an artillery park, and one of the boarders permitted himself some pleasantry about the edibleness of so petreous a vegetable; a pleasantry that glided over the impassive countenance of Dona Casiana without leaving the slightest trace.

Manuel sat about observing the boarders. It was the day after the conspiracy; Dona Violante and her daughters were incommunicative and in ugly humour. Dona Violante's inflated face at every moment creased into a frown, and her restless, turbid eyes betrayed deep preoccupation. Celia, the elder of the daughters, annoyed by the priest's jests, began to answer violently, cursing everything human and divine with a desperate, picturesque, raging hatred, which caused loud, universal laughter. Irene, the culprit of the previous night's scandal, a girl of some fifteen or sixteen years with a broad head, large hands and feet, an as yet incompletely developed body and heavy, ungainly movements, spoke scarcely a word and kept her gaze fixed upon her plate.

The meal at an end, the lodgers went off to their various tasks. At night Manuel served supper without dropping a thing or making a single mistake, but in five or six days he was forever doing things wrong.

It is impossible to judge how much of an impression was made upon the boy by the usage and customs of the boarding roost and the species of birds that inhabited it; but they could not have impressed him much. Manuel, while he served at table in the days that followed, had to put up with and endless succession of remarks, jests and practical jokes.

A thousand incidents, comical enough to one who did not have to suffer them, turned up at every step; now they would discover tobacco in the soup, now coal, ashes, and shreds of coloured paper in the water-bottle.

One of the salesmen, who was troubled with his stomach and spent his days gazing at the reflection of his tongue in the mirror, would jump up in fury when one of these jokes was perpetrated, and ask the proprietress to discharge an incompetent booby who committed such atrocities.

Manuel grew accustomed to these manifestations against his humble person, and when they scolded him he retorted with the most bare-faced impudence and indifference.

Soon he learned the life and miracles of every boarder and was ready to talk back in outrageous fashion if they tried his patience.

Dona Violante and her daughters,—especially the old lady, showed a great liking for the boy. The three women had now been living in the house for several months; they paid little and when they couldn't pay at all, they didn't. But they were easily satisfied. All three occupied an inner room that opened onto the courtyard, whence came a nauseating odour of fermented milk that escaped from the stable of the ground floor.

The hole in which they lived was not large enough to move about in; the room assigned to them by the landlady—in proportion to the size of their rent and the insecurity of the payment—was a dark den occupied by two narrow iron beds, between which, in the little space left, was crammed a cot.

Here slept these gallant dames; by day they scoured all Madrid, and spent their existence making arrangements with money-lenders, pawning articles and taking them out of pawn.

The two young ladies, Celia and Irene, although they were mother and daughter, passed for sisters. Dona Violante, in her better days, had led the life of a petty courtesan and had succeeded in hoarding up a tidy bit as provision against the winter of old age, when a former patron convinced her that he had a remarkable combination for winning a fortune at the Fronton. Dona Violante fell into the trap and her patron left her without a centimo. Then Dona Violante went back to the old life, became half blind and reached that lamentable state at which surely she would have arrived much sooner if, early in her career, she had developed a talent for living respectably.

The old lady passed most of the day in the confinement of her dark room, which reeked of stable odors, rice powder and cosmetics; at night she had to accompany her daughter and her granddaughter on walks, and to cafes and theatres, on the hunt and capture of the kid, as it was put by the travelling salesman who suffered from his stomach,—a fellow half humorist and half grouch. When they were in the house Celia and Irene, the daughter and the granddaughter of Dona Violante, kept bickering at all hours; perhaps this continuous state of irritation derived from the close quarters in which they lived; perhaps so much passing as sisters in the eyes of others had convinced them that they really were, so that they quarrelled and insulted one another as such.

The one point on which they agreed was that Dona Violante was in their way; the burden of the blind woman frightened away every libidinous old fellow that came within the range of Irene and Celia.

The landlady, Dona Casiana, who at the slightest occasion suspected the abandonment of the blind old woman, admonished the two maternally to gird themselves with patience; Dona Violante, after all, was not, like Calypso, immortal. But they replied that this toiling away at full speed just to keep the old lady in medicine and syrups wasn't at all to their taste.

Dona Casiana shook her head sadly, for her age and circumstances enabled her to put herself in Dona Violante's place, and she argued with this example, asking them to put themselves in the grandmother's position; but neither was convinced.

Then the landlady advised them to peer into her mirror. She—as she assured them—had descended from the heights of the Comandancia (her husband had been a commander of the carbineers) to the wretchedness of running a boarding-house, yet she was resigned, and her lips curled in a stoic smile.

Dona Casiana knew the meaning of resignation and her only solace in this life was a few volumes of novels in serial form, two or three feuilletons, and a murky liquid mysteriously concocted by her own hands out of sugared water and alcohol.

This beverage she poured into a square, wide-mouthed flask, into which she placed a thick stem of anis. She kept it in the closet of her bedroom.

Some one who discovered the flask with its black twig of anis compared it to those bottles in which fetuses and similar nasty objects are preserved, and since that time, whenever the landlady appeared with rosy cheeks, a thousand comments—not at all favourable to the madame's abstinence—ran from lodger to lodger.

"Dona Casiana's tipsy from her fetus-brandy."

"The good lady drinks too much of that fetus."

"The fetus has gone to her head...."

Manuel took a friendly part in this witty merriment of the boarders. The boy's faculties of adaptation were indisputably enormous, for after a week in the landlady's house it was as if he had always lived there.

His skill at magic was sharpened: whenever he was needed he was not to be seen and no sooner was anybody's back turned than he was in the street playing with the boys of the neighbourhood.

As a result of his games and his scrapes he got his clothes so dirty and torn that the landlady nicknamed him the page Don Rompe-Galas, recalling a tattered character from a sainete that Dona Casiana, according to her affirmations, had seen played in her halycon days.

Generally, those who most made use of Manuel's services were the journalist whom they called the Superman—he sent the boy off with copy to the printers—and Celia and Irene, who employed him for bearing notes and requests for money to their friends. Dona Violante, whenever she pilfered a few centimos from her daughter would dispatch Manuel to the store for a package of cigarettes, and give him a cigar for the errand.

"Smoke it here," she would say. "Nobody'll see you."

Manuel would sit down upon a trunk and the old lady, a cigarette in her mouth and blowing smoke through her nostrils, would recount adventures from the days of her glory.

That room of Dona Violante and her daughters was a haunt of infection; from the hooks nailed to the wall hung dirty rags, and between the lack of air and the medley of odours a stench arose strong enough to fell an ox.

Manuel listened to Dona Violante's stories with genuine delight. The old lady was at her best in her commentaries.

"I tell you, my boy," she would say, "you can take my word for it. A woman with a good pair of breasts and who happens to be a pretty warm article"—and here the old lady pulled at her cigarette and with an expressive gesture indicated what she meant by her no less expressive word—"will always have a trail of men after her."

Dona Violante used to sing songs from Spanish zarzuelas and from French operettas, which produced in Manuel a terrible sadness. He could not say why, but they gave him the impression of a world of pleasures that was hopelessly beyond his reach. When he heard Dona Violante sing the song from El Juramento

Disdain is a sword with a double edge, One slays with love, the other with forgetfulness....

he had a vision of salons, ladies, amorous intrigues; but even more than by this he was overwhelmed with sadness by the waltzes from La Dina and La Grande Duchesse.

Dona Violante's reflexions opened Manuel's eyes; the scenes that occurred daily in the house, however, worked quite as much as these toward such a result.

Another good instructor was found in the person of Dona Casiana's niece, a trifle older than Manuel,—a thin, weakly chit of such a malicious nature that she was always hatching plots against somebody.

If any one struck her she didn't shed a tear; she would go down to the concierge's lodge when the concierge's little boy was left alone, would grab him and pinch him and kick him, in this manner wreaking vengeance for the blows she had received.

After eating, almost all of the boarders went off to their affairs; Celia and Irene, together with the Biscayan, indulged in a grand frolic by spying upon the women in Isabel's house, who would come out on the balcony and chat, or signal to the neighbours. At times these miserable brothel odalisques were not content with speaking; they would dance and exhibit their calves.

Manuel's mother, as always, would be meditating upon heaven and hell, giving little heed to the pettiness of this earth, and she could not shield her son from such edifying spectacles. Petra's educational system consisted only of giving Manuel an occasional blow and of making him read prayer-books.

Petra imagined that she could see the traits of the machinist showing up in the boy, and this troubled her. She wished Manuel to be like her,—humble toward his superiors, respectful toward the priests...; but a fine place this was for learning to respect anything!

One morning, after the solemn ceremony had been celebrated in which all the women of the house issued into the corridor swinging their night service, there burst from Dona Violante's room a clamour of shouts, weeping, stamping and vociferation.

The landlady, the Biscayan and several of the boarders tiptoed into the corridor to pry. Inside the quarrellers must have realized that they were being spied upon, for they opened the door and the fray continued in low tones.

Manuel and the landlady's niece remained in the entry. They could hear Irene's sobbing and the scolding voices of Celia and Dona Violante.

At first they could not make out what was being said; but soon the three women forgot their determination to speak low and their voices rose in anger.

"Go! Go to the House of Mercy and have them rid you of that swelling! Wretch!" cried Celia.

"Well, what of it?" retorted Irene. "I'm caught, am I? I know it. What of it?"

Dona Violante opened the door to the entry furiously; Manuel and the landlady's niece scampered off, and the old lady came out in a patched flannel shift and a weed kerchief tied about her ears, and began to pace to and fro, dragging her worn-out shoes from end to end of the corridor.

"The sow! Worse than a sow!" she muttered. "Did any one ever see such a filthy creature!"

Manuel went off to the parlour, where the landlady and the Biscayan were chatting in low tones. The landlady's niece, dying with curiosity, questioned the two women with growing irritation:

"But why are they scolding Irene?"

The landlady and the Biscayan exchanged amicable glances and burst into laughter.

"Tell me," cried the child insistently, clutching at her aunt's kerchief. "What of it if she has that bundle? Who gave her that package?"

The landlady and the Biscayan could no longer restrain their guffaws, while the little girl stared avidly up at them, trying to make out the meaning of what she heard.

"Who gave her that package?" repeated the Biscayan between outbursts. "My dear little girl, we really don't know who gave her that package."

All the boarders repeated the niece's question with enthusiastic delight, and at every table discussion some wag would be sure to interrupt suddenly with:

"Now I see that you know who gave her that package." The remark would be greeted with uproarious merriment.

Then, after a few days had passed, there was rumour of a mysterious consultation held by Dona Violante's daughters with the wife of a barber on Jardines street,—a sort of provider of little angels for limbo; it was said that Irene returned from the conference in a coach, very pale, and that she had to be put at once to bed. Certainly the girl did not leave her room for more than a week and, when she appeared, she looked like a convalescent and the frowns had disappeared completely from the face of her mother and her grandmother.

"She looks like an infanticide," said the priest when he saw her again, "but she's prettier than ever."

Whether any transgression had been committed, none could say with surety; soon everything was forgotten; a patron appeared for the girl, and he was, from all appearances, wealthy. In commemoration of so happy an event the boarders participated in the treat. After the supper they drank cognac and brandy, the priest played the guitar, Irene danced sevillanas with less grace than a bricklayer, as the landlady said; the Superman sang some fados that he had learned in Portugal, and the Biscayan, not to be outdone, burst forth into some malaguenas that might just as well have been a cante flamenco or the Psalms of David.

Only the blond student with the eyes of steel abstained from the celebration; he was absorbed in his thoughts.

"And you, Roberto," Celia said to him several times,—"don't you sing or do anything?"

"Not I," he replied coldly.

"You haven't any blood in your veins."

The youth looked at her for a moment, shrugged his shoulders indifferently and his pale lips traced a smile of disdainful mockery.

Then, as almost always happened in these boarding-house sprees, some wag turned on the music-box in the corridor and the duet from La Mascotte together with the waltz from La Diva rose in confusion upon the air; the Superman and Celia danced a couple of waltzes and the party wound up with everybody singing a habanera, until they wearied and each owl flew off to his nest.



CHAPTER IV

Oh, love, love!—What's Don Telmo Doing?—Who is Don Telmo?—Wherein the Student and Don Telmo Assume Certain Novelesque Proportions.

The Baroness was hardly ever seen in the house, except during the early hours of the morning and the night. She dined and supped outside. If the landlady was to be credited, she was an adventuress whose position varied considerably, for one day she would be moving to a costly apartment and sporting a carriage, while the next she would disappear for several months in the germ-ridden hole of some cheap boarding-house.

The Baroness's daughter, a child of some twelve or fourteen years, never appeared in the dining-room or in the corridor; her mother forbade all communication with the lodgers. Her name was Kate. She was a fair girl, very light-complexioned and exceedingly winsome. Only the student Roberto spoke to her now and then in English.

The youth was enthusiastic over her.

That summer the Baroness's streak of bad luck must have come to an end, for she began to make herself some fine clothes and prepared to move.

For several weeks a modiste and her assistant came daily, with gowns and hats for the Baroness and Kate.

Manuel, one night, saw the modiste's assistant go by with a huge box in her hand and was smitten.

He followed her at a distance in great fear lest she see him. As he stole on behind, he wondered what he could say to such a maiden if he were to accompany her. It must be something gallant, exquisite; he even imagined that she was at his side and he racked his brain for beautiful phrases and delicate compliments, yet nothing but commonplaces rewarded his search. In the meantime the assistant and her box were lost in the crowd and he could not catch sight of them again.

The memory of that maiden was for Manuel as an enchanting music, a fancy upon which were reared still wilder fancies. Often he made up tales in which always he figured as the hero and the assistant as the heroine. While Manuel bemoaned the harshness of fate, Roberto, the blond student, gave himself up likewise to melancholy, brooding upon the Baroness's daughter. The student was forced to endure jests especially from Celia, who, according to certain evil tongues, was trying to rouse him from his habitual frigidity. But Roberto gave her no heed.

Some days later the house was agog with curiosity.

As the boarders came in from the street, they greeted each other jokingly, repeating in the manner of a pass-word: "Who is Don Telmo? What's Don Telmo doing?"

One day the district police-commissioner came and spoke to Don Telmo, and some one heard or invented the report that the two men were discussing the notorious crime on Malasana Street. Upon hearing this news the expectant inquisitiveness of the boarders waxed great, and all, half in jest and half in earnest, arranged to keep a watch upon the mysterious gentleman.

Don Telmo was the name of the cadaverous old fellow who wiped his cups and spoons with his napkin, and his reserved manner seemed to invite observation. Taciturn, indifferent, never joining the conversation, a man of few words who never made any complaints, he attracted attention by the very fact that he seemed intent upon not attracting it.

His only visible occupation was to wind the seven or eight clocks of the house and to regulate them when they got out of order,—an event of common occurrence.

Don Telmo had the features of a very sad man,—one in profound sorrow. His livid countenance betrayed fathomless dejection. He wore his white beard and his hair short; his brows fell like brushes over his grey eyes.

In the house he went around wrapped in a faded coat, with a Greek bonnet and cloth slippers. When he went out he donned a long frock coat and a very tall silk hat; only on certain summer days would he wear a Havana hat of woven straw.

For more than a month Don Telmo was the topic of conversation in the boarding-house.

In the famous trial of the Malasana Street crime a servant declared that one afternoon she saw Dona Celsa's son in an aqueduct of the Plaza de Oriente, talking with a lame old man. For the guests this man could be none other than Don Telmo. With this suspicion they set about spying upon the old man; he, however, had a sharp scent and sniffed the state of affairs at once; the boarders, seeing how bootless their attempts were proving, tried to ransack his room; they used a number of keys until they got the door open and when they had forced an entrance, discovered nothing more that a closet fastened by a formidable safety-lock.

The Biscayan and Roberto, the blond student, opposed this campaign of espionage. The Superman, the priest, the salesmen and the women of the establishment made up that the Biscayan and the student were allies of Don Telmo, and, in all probability, accomplices in the Malasana Street crime.

"Without a doubt," averred the Superman, "Don Telmo killed Dona Celsa Nebot; the Biscayan poured oil over the body and set it afire, and Roberto hid the jewels in the house on Amaniel Street."

"That cold bird!" replied Celia. "What could he do?"

"Nothing, nothing. We must keep on their track," said the curate.

"And get some money out of that old Shylock," added the Superman.

This espionage, carried on half in joke and half in all seriousness, wound up in debates and disputes, and as a result two groups were formed in the house; that of the Sensible folk, comprised by the three criminals and the landlady, and that of the Foolish, in which were enrolled all the rest.

This limitation of sides forced Roberto and Don Telmo into intimacy, so that the student changed his place at the table and sat next to the old man.

One night, after eating, while Manuel was removing the service, the plates and the cups, Don Telmo and Roberto were engaged in conversation.

The student was a dogmatic reasoner, dry, rectilinear, never swerving from his point of view; he spoke but little, but when he did speak, it was in a sententious manner.

One day, discussing whether or not young men should be ambitious and look to the future, Roberto asserted that the first was the proper course.

"Well, that isn't what you're doing," commented the Superman.

"I am absolutely convinced," replied Roberto, "that some day I'm going to be a millionaire. I am engaged in constructing the machinery that will bring me a fortune."

The Superman posed as a man of the world who had seen many things; upon hearing this he permitted himself a scoffing remark concerning Roberto's ability, and the youth retorted in so violent and aggressive a manner that the journalist lost his composure and blurted out a string of apologies.

Afterwards, when Don Telmo and Roberto were left alone at the table, they continued talking, and from the general theme as to whether young folk should or should not be ambitious, they passed on to the student's hopes of some day being a millionaire.

"I'm convinced that I shall be one," said the boy. "In my family there have been a number of individuals with great luck."

"That's all very well, Roberto," muttered the old man. "But one must know how to become wealthy."

"Don't imagine that my hope is illusory; I'm going to inherit, and not a small amount, either; I'm heir to a vast sum ... millions.... The foundations of my work and the framework are already completed; all I need now is money."

Don Telmo's countenance was crossed by an expression of disagreeable surprise.

"Don't worry," replied Roberto, "I'm not going to ask you for it."

"My dear boy, if I had it, I'd give it to you with pleasure, and free of interest. They think I'm a millionaire."

"No. I tell you I'm not trying to get a centimo from you. All I ask is a bit of advice."

"Speak, then, speak. I'm all attention," answered the old man, resting an elbow upon the table.

Manuel, who was taking off the tablecloth, cocked his ears.

At that juncture one of the salesmen entered the dining-room, and Roberto, who was about to say something, grew silent and looked impertinently at the intruder. The student was an aristocratic type with blond hair, thick and combed back, and moustache of glittering white, like silver; his skin was somewhat tanned by the sun.

"Won't you continue?" asked Don Telmo.

"No," answered the student, staring at the salesman. "For I don't want anybody to hear what I have to say."

"Come to my room, then," replied Don Telmo. "There we can talk undisturbed. We'll have coffee up in my room. Manuel!" he ordered. "Bring us two coffees."

Manuel, who was deeply interested in discovering what the student had to say, dashed out into the street on his errand. He was more than a quarter of an hour in returning with the coffee, and supposed that Roberto by this time had finished his story.

He knocked at Don Telmo's door and was resolved to linger there as long as possible, that he might catch all he could of the conversation. He began to dust Don Telmo's lamp-table with a cloth.

"And how did you ascertain that," Don Telmo was asking, "if your family didn't know it?"

"Quite by accident," answered the student. "A couple of years ago, about this time of the year, I wished to give a present to a sister, who is a protegee of mine, and who is very fond of playing the piano. It occurred to me, three days before her birthday, to purchase two operas, have them bound and send them to her. I wanted to have the book bound immediately, but at the shops they told me there was no time; I was walking along with my operas under my arm in the vicinity of the Plaza de las Descalzas when in the back wall of a convent I caught sight of a tiny bookbinder's shop,—like a cave with steps leading down. I asked the man,—a gnarled old fellow,—whether he would bind the book for me in a couple of days, and he said 'Yes.' 'Very well,' I told him, 'then I'll call within two days.'—'I'll send it to you; let me have your address.' I gave him my address and he asked my name. 'Roberto Hasting y Nunez de Letona.'—'Are you a Nunez de Latona?' he inquired, gazing at me curiously. 'Yes, sir.'— 'Do you come from la Rioja?'—'Yes, and suppose I do?' I retorted, provoked by all this questioning. And the binder, whose mother was a Nunez de Latona and came from la Rioja, told me the story I've just told you. At first I took it all as a joke; then, after some time, I wrote to my mother, and she wrote back that everything was quite so, and that she recalled something of the whole matter."

Don Telmo's gaze strayed over toward Manuel.

"What are you doing here?" he snarled. "Get out; I don't want you going around telling tales...."

"I'm no tattle-tale."

"Very well, then, get a move on."

Manuel went out, and Don Telmo and Roberto continued their conversation. The boarders showered Manuel with questions, but he refused to open his mouth. He had decided to join the group of the Sensible ones.

This friendship between the old man and the student served as an incitement for the continuation of the espionage. One of the salesmen learned that Don Telmo drew up contracts of sales on reversion and made a living by lending money on houses and furniture, and at other such usurious business.

Some one saw him in the Rastro in an old clothes shop that probably belonged to him, and invented the tale that he had gold coins concealed in his room and that he played with them at night upon the bed.

It was also discovered that Don Telmo frequently paid visits to a very elegant, good looking young lady, who was, according to some, his sweetheart, and to others, his niece.

On the following Sunday Manuel overheard a conversation between the old man and the student. In a dark room there was a transom that opened into Don Telmo's room, and from this position he played the eavesdropper.

"So he refuses to furnish any more data?" Don Telmo was asking.

"Absolutely," said the student. "And he assures me that the reason for the name of Fermin de Nunez de Latona not appearing in the parish register was—forgery; that this was effected by a certain Shaphter, one of Bandon's agents, and that afterwards the curates took advantage of it to acquire possession of some chaplaincies. I am certain that the town where Fermin Nunez was born was either Arnedo or Autol."

Don Telmo carefully inspected a large folio document: the genealogy of Roberto's family.

"What course do you think I ought to pursue?" asked the student.

"You need money; but it's so hard to find that!" muttered the old man. "Why don't you marry?"

"And what good would that do?"

"I mean some wealthy woman...."

Here Don Telmo lowered his voice to an inaudible pitch and after a few words they separated.

The espionage of the boarders became so obstructive to the men spied upon that the Biscayan and Don Telmo served notice on the landlady of their removal. Dona Casiana's desolation, when she learned of their decision, was exceedingly great; several times she had to resort to the closet and surrender herself to the consolations of the beverage of her own concoction.

The boarders were so disappointed at the flight of the Biscayan and of Don Telmo that neither the altercations between Irene and Celia nor the stories told by the priest Don Jacinto, who stressed the smutty note, were potent enough to draw them from their silence.

The bookkeeper, a jaundiced fellow with an emaciated face and a beard like that of a monumental Jew, exceedingly taciturn and timid, had burst into speech in his excitement over the intrigues invented and fancied in the life of Don Telmo; now he became from moment to moment sallower than ever with his hypochondria.

Don Telmo's departure was paid for by the student and Don Manuel. As far as the student was concerned they dared no more than twit him on his complicity with the old man and the Biscayan; at Manuel, however, they all kept screeching and scolding when they weren't kicking him.

One of the salesmen,—the fellow who was troubled with his stomach, exasperated by the boredom, the heat and his uncertain digestion, found no other distraction than insulting and berating Manuel while he served at table, whether or not there were cause.

"Go on, you cheap fool!" he would say. "You're not worth the food you eat! Clown!"

This refrain, added to others of the same tenor, began to weary Manuel. One day the salesman heaped the insults and the vilification upon him more plentifully than ever. They had sent the boy out for two coffees, and he was slow in returning; on that particular day the delay was not due to any fault of his, for he had been kept waiting a long time.

"They ought to put a pack-saddle on you, you ass!" shouted the agent as Manuel entered.

"You won't be the one to do it!" retorted the boy impudently, as he placed the cups upon the table.

"I won't? Do you want to see me?"

"Yes, I do."

The salesman got up and kicked Manuel in the shins; the poor boy saw stars. He gave a cry of pain and then, furious, seized a plate and sent it flying at the agent's head; the latter ducked and the projectile crossed the dining-room, crashed through a window pane and fell into the courtyard, where it smashed with a racket. The salesman grabbed one of the coffee-pots that was filled with coffee and milk and hurled it at Manuel with such good aim that it struck the boy in the face; the youth, blinded with rage and by the coffee and milk, rushed upon his enemy, cornered him, and took revenge for the insults and blows with an endless succession of kicks and punches.

"He's killing me! He's killing me!" shrieked the agent in feminine wails.

"Thief! Clown!" shouted Manuel, employing the street's choicest repertory of insults.

The Superman and the priest seized Manuel by the arms, leaving him at the mercy of the salesman, who, beholding the boy thus corralled, tried to wreak vengeance; but when he was ready to strike, Manuel gave him such a forceful kick in the stomach that the fellow vomited up his whole meal.

Everybody took sides against Manuel, except Roberto, who defended him. The agent retired to his room, summoned the landlady, and told her that he refused to remain another moment as long as Petra's son was in the house.

The landlady, whose chief interest was to retain her boarder, communicated her decision to her servant.

"Now see what you've done. You can't stay here any longer," said Petra to her son.

"All right. That clown will pay for these," replied the boy, nursing the welts on his forehead. "I tell you, if I ever meet him I'm going to smash in his head."

"You take good care not to say a word to him."

At this moment the student happened to enter the dining-room.

"You did well, Manuel," he exclaimed, turning to Petra. "What right had that blockhead to insult him? In this place every boss has a right to attack his neighbour if he doesn't do as all the others wish. What a cowardly gang!"

As he spoke, Roberto blanched with rage; then he grew calm and asked Petra:

"Where are you going to take Manuel now?"

"To a cobbler's shop that belongs to a relative of mine on Aguila street."

"Is it in the poorer quarters?"

"Yes."

"I'll come to see you some day."

Before Manuel had gone to bed, Roberto appeared again in the dining-room.

"Listen," he said to Manuel. "If you know any strange place in the slums where criminals get together, let me hear. I'll go with you."

"I'll let you know, never you mind."

"Fine. See you again. Good-bye!"

Roberto extended his hand to Manuel, who pressed it with deep gratitude.



PART TWO



CHAPTER I

The Regeneration of Footwear and The Lion of The Shoemaker's Art—The First Sunday—An Escapade—El Bizco and his Gang.

The inhabitant of Madrid who at times finds himself by accident in the poor quarters near the Manzanares river, is surprised at the spectacle of poverty and sordidness, of sadness and neglect presented by the environs of Madrid with their wretched Rondas, laden with dust in the summer and in winter wallowing in mire. The capital is a city of contrasts; it presents brilliant light in close proximity to deep gloom; refined life, almost European, in the centre; in the suburbs, African existence, like that of an Arab village. Some years ago, not many, in the vicinity of the Ronda de Sevilla and of el Campillo de Gil Imon, there stood a house of suspicious aspect and of not very favourable repute, to judge by popular rumour. The observer ...

In this and other paragraphs of the same style I had placed some hope, for they imparted to my novel a certain phantasmagoric and mysterious atmosphere; but my friends have convinced me I ought to suppress these passages, arguing that they would be quite in place in a Parisian novel, but not in one dealing with Madrid,—not at all. They add, moreover, that here nobody goes astray, not even if one wishes to. Neither are there here any observers, nor houses of suspicious aspect, nor anything else. In resignation, then, I have excised these paragraphs, through which I hoped some day to be elected to the Spanish Academy; and so I continue my tale in more pedestrian language.

It came about, then, that on the day following the row in the dining-room of the lodging-house, Petra, very early in the morning, woke Manuel and told him to dress.

The boy recalled the scene of the previous day; he verified it by raising his hand to his forehead, for the bruises still pained him, and from his mother's tone he understood that she persisted in her resolve to take him to the cobbler's.

After Manuel had dressed, mother and son left the house and went into the bun-shop for a cup of coffee and milk. Then they walked down to Arenal Street, crossed the Plaza del Oriente, and the Viaduct, thence through Rosario Street. Continuing along the walls of a barracks they reached the heights at whose base runs the Ronda de Segovia. From this eminence there was a view of the yellowish countryside that reached as far as Jetafe and Villaverde, and the San Isidro cemeteries with their grey mudwalls and their black cypresses.

From the Ronda de Segovia, which they covered in a short time, they climbed up Aguila Street, and paused before a house at the corner of the Campillo de Gil Imon.

There were two shoe shops opposite one another and both closed. Manuel's mother, who could not recall which was her relative's place, inquired at the tavern.

"Senor Ignacio's over at the big house," answered the tavern-keeper. "I think the cobbler's come already, but he hasn't opened the shop yet."

Mother and son had to wait until the shop was opened. The building was not the tiny, evil-boding one, but it looked as if it had an atrocious desire to cave in, for here and there it, too, showed cracks, holes and all manner of disfigurements. It had a lower and upper floor, large and wide balconies the balustrades of which were gnawed by rust and the diminutive panes of glass held in place by leaden strips.

On the ground floor of the house, in the part that faced Aguila Street, there was a livery-stable, a carpenter's shop, a tavern and the cobbler's shop owned by Petra's relation. This establishment displayed over the entrance a sign that read:

For The Regeneration of Footwear.

The historian of the future will surely find in this sign proof of how widespread, during several epochs, was a certain notion of national regeneration, and it will not surprise him that this idea, which was launched in the aim to reform and regenerate the Constitution and the Spanish people, came to an end upon the signboard of a shop on a foresaken corner of the slums, where the only thing done was the reformation and regeneration of footwear.

We will not deny the influence of this regenerating theory upon the proprietor of the establishment For The Regeneration of Footwear; but we must point out that this presumptuous legend was put up in token of his defiance of the cobbler across the way, and we must register likewise that it had been answered by another, and even more presumptuous, one.

One fine morning the workmen in the establishment for The Regeneration of Footwear were dumfounded to find staring them in the face the sign of the rival shop. It was a beautiful signboard about two metres long, bearing this inscription:

The Lion of the Shoemaker's Art

This in itself was quite tolerable; the terrible, annihilating thing about it was the painting that sprawled over the middle of the board. A handsome yellow lion with the face of a man and with wavy mane, standing erect; in his front paws he held a boot, apparently of patent-leather. Beneath this representation was printed the following: You may break, but never unstitch it.

This was a crushing motto: A lion (wild beast) trying to unseam the boot made by the Lion (shoemaker), and powerless before the task! What a humiliation for the lion! What a triumph for the shoemaker! The lion, in this case, was For The Regeneration of Footwear, which, as the saying goes, had been compelled to bite the dust.

In addition to Senor Ignacio's sign there was, in one of the balconies of the large house, the bust of a woman, made probably of pasteboard, with lettering beneath: Perfecta Ruiz: Ladies' Hair Dressing; on the side walls of the main entrance there hung several announcements unworthy of occupying the attention of the aforementioned historian, in which were offered low-priced rooms with or without bed, amanuenses and seamstresses. A single card, upon which were pasted horizontally, vertically and obliquely a number of cut-out figures, deserved to go down in history for its laconicism. It read:

Parisian Styles. Escorihuela, Tailor.

Manuel, who had not taken the trouble to read all these signs, went into the building by a little door at the side of the livery-stable entrance, and walked through the corridor to a very filthy courtyard.

When he returned to the street the cobbler's shop had already been opened. Petra and her boy entered.

"Isn't Senor Ignacio in?" she asked.

"He'll be here in a second," answered a youngster who was piling up old shoes in the middle of the shop.

"Tell him that his cousin is here,—Petra."

Senor Ignacio appeared. He was a man of between forty and fifty, thin and wizened. Petra and he got into conversation, while the boy and a little urchin continued to heap up the old shoes. Manuel was looking on, when the boy said to him:

"Come on, you. Lend a hand!"

Manuel pitched in, and when the three had ended their labours, they waited for Petra and Senor Ignacio to finish chatting. Petra was recounting Manuel's latest exploits to her cousin and the cobbler listened smilingly. The man bore no signs of gruffness; he was blond and beardless; upon his upper lip sprouted a few saffron-hued hairs. His complexion was leathery, wrinkled; the deep furrows of his face, and his wearied mien, gave him the appearance of a weakling. He spoke with a certain ironic vagueness.

"You're going to stay here," said Petra to Manuel.

"All right."

"He's an amiable rogue," exclaimed Senor Ignacio, laughing. "He agrees right away."

"Yes; he takes everything calmly. But, look—" she added, turning to her son, "if ever I find out that you carry on as you did yesterday, you'll hear from me!"

Manuel said good-bye to his mother.

"Were you very long in that town of Soria with my cousin?" Senor Ignacio asked.

"Two years."

"And did you work very hard there?"

"I didn't work at all."

"Well, sonny, you can't get out of it here. Come. Sit down and get busy. These are your cousins," added Senor Ignacio, indicating the youth and the little boy.

"They are a pair of warriors, too."

The youth's name was Leandro, and he was well-built; in no respect did he resemble his father. He had thick lips and a thick nose, an obstinate, manly expression; the other was a boy of about Manuel's age, frail, thin, with a rascally look, and called Vidal.

Senor Ignacio and the three boys sat down around a wooden block formed of a tree-trunk with a deep groove running through it. The labour consisted in undoing and taking apart old boots and shoes, which arrived at the shop from every direction in huge, badly tied bales and in sacks with paper designations sewed to the burlap. The boot destined to be drawn and quartered was laid upon the block; there it received a stroke or more from a knife until the heel was severed; then, with the nippers the various layers of sole were ripped off; with the scissors they cut off buttons and laces, and everything was sorted into its corresponding basket: in one, the heels; in others, the rubbers, the latchets, the buckles.

So low had The Regeneration of Footwear descended: it justified its title in a manner quite distinct from that intended by the one who had bestowed it.

Senor Ignacio, a master workman, had been compelled through lack of business to abandon the awl and the shoemaker's stirrup for the nippers and the knife; creating for destroying; the fashioning of new boots for the disembowelling of old. The contrast was bitter; but Senor Ignacio could find consolation in looking across at his neighbour, he of the Lion of The Shoemaker's Art, who only at rare intervals would receive an order for some cheap pair of boots.

The first morning of work was infinitely boresome to Manuel; this protracted inactivity became unbearable. At noon a bulky old woman entered the shop with their lunch in a basket. This was Senor Ignacio's mother.

"And my wife?" the cobbler asked her.

"She's gone washing."

"And Salome Isn't she coming?"

"No. She got some work in a house for the whole week."

The old lady extracted from the basket a pot, dishes, napkins, cutlery, and a huge loaf of bread; she laid a cloth upon the floor and everybody squatted down around it. She poured the soup from the pot into the plates, into which each one crumbled a bit of bread, and they began to eat. Then the old woman doled out to each his portion of boiled meat and vegetables, and, as they ate, the cobbler discoursed briefly upon the future of Spain and the reasons for national backwardness,—a topic that appeals to most Spaniards, who consider themselves regenerators.

Senor Ignacio was a mild liberal, a man who swelled with enthusiasm over these words about the national sovereignty, and who spoke openly of the Glorious Revolution. In matters of religion he advocated freedom of worship; his ideal would be for Spain to have an equal number of priests of the Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and every other denomination, for thus, he asserted, each would choose the dogma that seemed to him best. But one thing he'd certainly do if he had a say in the government. He would expel all the monks and nuns, for they're like the mange: the weaker the sufferer, the more it thrives. To this argument Leandro, the elder son, added that as far as the monks, nuns and other small fry were concerned, the best course with them was to lop off their heads like hogs, and with regard to the priests, whether Catholic, Protestant or Chinese, nothing would be lost if there were nary a one.

The old lady, too, joined the conversation, and since to her, as a huckstress of vegetables, politics was chiefly a question between marketwomen and the municipal guards, she spoke of a row in which the amiable ladies of the Cebada market had discharged their garden produce at the heads of several redcoats who were defending a trouble-maker of the market. The huckstresses wanted to organize a union, and then lay down the law and fix prices. Now this didn't at all appeal to her.

"What the deuce!" she exclaimed. "What right have they to take away a person's stock if he wants to sell it cheaper? Suppose I take it into my head to give it all away free."

"Why no, senora," differed Leandro. "That's not right."

"And why not?"

"Because it isn't. Because tradesfolk ought to help one another, and if you, let's suppose, do as you say, you prevent somebody else from selling, and that's why Socialism was invented,—to favour man's industry."

"All right, then. Let them give two duros to man's industry and kill it."

The woman spoke very phlegmatically and sententiously. Her calm manner harmonized perfectly with her huge person, which was as thick and rigid as a tree-trunk; her face was fleshy and of stolid features, her wrinkles deep; pouches of loose flesh sagged beneath her eyes; on her head she wore a black kerchief, tightly knotted around her temples.

Senora Jacoba—that was her name—was a woman who probably felt neither heat nor cold; summer and winter she spent the dead hours seated by her vegetable stand at the Puerta de Moros; if she sold a head of lettuce between sunrise and sunset, it was a great deal.

After eating, some of the shoemaker's family went off to the courtyard for their siesta, while others remained in the shop.

Vidal, the man's younger son, sprawled out in the patio beside Manuel, and having inquired into the cause of the bumps that stood out on his cousin's forehead, asked:

"Have you ever been on this street before?"

"I? No."

"We have great times around here."

"You do, eh?"

"I should say so. Haven't you a girl?"

"I? No."

"Well, there are lots of girls 'round here that would like to have a fellow."

"Really?"

"Yes, sir! Over where we live there's a very pretty little thing, a friend of my girl. You can hitch up with her."

"But don't you live in this house?"

"No. We live in Embajadores lane. It's my aunt Salome and my grandmother who live here. Over where we are—oh, boy!—the times I've had!"

"In the town where I come from," said Manuel, not to be dwarfed by his cousin, "there were mountains higher than twenty of your houses here."

"In Madrid we've got the Monte de Principe Pio."

"But it can't be as high as the one in that town."

"It can't? Why, in Madrid everything's the best."

Manuel was not a little put out by the superiority which his cousin tried to assume by speaking to him about women in the tone of an experienced man about town who knew them through and through. After the noonday nap and a game of mus, over which the shoemaker and a few neighbours managed to get into a wrangle, Senor Ignacio and his children went off to their house. Manuel supped at Senora Jacoba's, the vegetable huckstress's, and slept in a beautiful bed that looked to him far better than the one at the boarding-house.

Once in, he weighed the pros and contras of his new social position, and in the midst of his calculations as to whether the needle of the balance inclined to this side or that, he fell asleep.

At first, the monotony of the labour and the steady application bothered Manuel; but soon he grew accustomed to one thing and another, so that the days seemed shorter and the work less irksome.

The first Sunday Manuel was fast asleep in Senora Jacoba's house when Vidal came in and waked him. It was after eleven; the marketwoman, as usual, had departed at dawn for her stall, leaving the boy alone.

"What are you doing there?" asked Vidal. "Why don't you get up?"

"Why? What time is it?"

"Awful late."

Manuel dressed hurriedly and they both left the house. Nearby, opposite Aguila street, on a little square, they joined a group of boys who were playing chito, and they followed the fortunes of the game with deep interest.

At noon Vidal said to his cousin:

"Today we're going to eat yonder."

"At your house?"

"Yes. Come on."

Vidal, whose specialty was finding things, discovered close by the fountain of the Ronda, which is near Aguila Street, an old, wide-brimmed high hat; the poor thing was hidden in a corner, perhaps through modesty. He began to kick it along and send it flying through the air and Manuel joined in the enterprise, so that between the two they transported the relic, venerable with antiquity, from the Ronda de Segovia to that of Toledo, thence to the Ronda de Embajadores, until they abandoned it in the middle of the street, minus top and brim. Having committed this perversity, Manuel and Vidal debouched into the Paseo da las Acacias and went into a house whose entrance consisted of a doorless archway.

The two boys walked through a narrow passage paved with cobblestones until they reached a courtyard, and then, by one of the numerous staircases they climbed to the balcony of the first floor, on which opened a row of doors and windows all painted blue.

"Here's where we live," said Vidal, pointing to one of the doors.

They entered. Senor Ignacio's home was small; it comprised two bedrooms, a parlour, the kitchen and a dark room. The first habitation was the parlour, furnished with a pine bureau, a sofa, several straw chairs and a green mirror stuck with chromos and photographs and covered with red netting. The cobbler's family used the parlour as the dining-room on Sundays, because it was the lightest and the most spacious of their rooms.

When Manuel and Vidal arrived the family had been waiting for them a long time. They all sat down to table, and Salome, the cobbler's sister-in-law, took charge of serving the meal. She resembled very closely her sister, the mother of Vidal. Both, of medium height, had short, saucy noses and black, pretty eyes; despite this physical similarity, however, their appearance differentiated them sharply. Vidal's mother,—called Leandra,—untidy, unkempt, loathsome, and betraying traces of ill humour, seemed much older than Salome, although but three or four years separated them. Salome had a merry, resolute air.

Yet, consider the irony of fate! Leandra, despite her slovenly ways, her sour disposition and her addiction to drink, was married to a good hardworking man, while Salome, endowed with excellent gifts of industriousness and sweet temper, had wound up by going to live with an outcast who made his way by swindling, pilfering and browbeating and who had given her two children. Her humble or servile spirit, confronted with this wild, independent nature, made Salome adore her man, and she deceived herself into considering him a tremendous, energetic fellow, though he was in all truth a coward and a tramp. The bully had seen just how matters stood, and whenever it pleased him he would stamp into the house and demand the pay that Salome earned by sewing at the machine, at five centimos per two yards. Unresistingly she handed him the product of her sweating toil, and many a time the ruffian, not content with depriving her of the money, gave her a beating into the bargain.

Salome's two children were not today in Senor Ignacio's home; on Sundays, after dressing them very neatly, their mother would send them to a relative of hers,—the proprietress of a workshop,—where they spent the afternoon.

At the meal Manuel listened to the conversation without taking part. They were discussing one of the girls of the neighbourhood who had run off with a wealthy horse-dealer, a married man with a family.

"She did wisely," declared Leandra, draining a glass of wine.

"If she didn't know he was married...."

"What's the difference?" retorted Leandra with an air of unconcern.

"Plenty. How would you like a woman to carry off your husband?" Salome asked her sister.

"Psch!"

"Yes, nowadays, we know," interrupted Senor Ignacio's mother. "Of two women there isn't one that's respectable."

"A great ways any one'll go by being respectable," snarled Leandra. "Poverty and hunger.... If a woman weren't to get married, then she might make a change and even acquire money."

"I don't see how," asserted Salome.

"How? Even if she had to go into the business."

Senor Ignacio, disgusted, turned his head away from his wife, and his elder son, Leandro, eyed his mother grimly, severely.

"Bah, that's all talk," argued Salome, who wished to thresh the matter out impersonally. "You'd hardly like it just the same if folks were to insult you wherever you went."

"Me? Much I care what folks say to me!" replied the cobbler's wife. "Stuff and nonsense! If they call me a loose woman, and if I'm not, why, you see: a floral wreath. And if I am,—it's all the same in the end."

Senor Ignacio, offended, shifted the conversation to the crime on Panuelas Street; a jealous organ-grinder had slain his sweetheart for a harsh word and the hearers were excited over the case, each offering his opinion. The meal over, Senor Ignacio, Leandro, Vidal and Manuel went out to the gallery to have a nap while the women remained inside gossiping.

All the neighbours had brought their sleeping-mats out, and in their undershirts, half naked, some seated, others stretched out, they were dozing on the galleries.

"Hey, you," said Vidal to Manuel. "Let's be off."

"Where?"

"To the Pirates. We meet today. They must be waiting for us already."

"What do you mean,—pirates?"

"Bizco and the others."

"And why do they call 'em that?"

"Because they're like the old time pirates."

Manuel and Vidal stepped into the patio and leaving the house, walked off down Embajadores lane.

"They call us the Pirates," explained Vidal, "from a certain battle of stones we had. Some of the kids from the Paseo de las Acacias had got some sticks and formed a company with a Spanish flag at the head; then I, Bizco, and three or four others, began to throw stones at them and made them retreat. The Corretor, a fellow who lives in our house, and who saw us chasing after them, said to us: 'Say, are you pirates or what? For, if you're pirates you ought to fly the black flag. Well, next day I swiped a dark apron from my father and I tied it to a stick and we got after the kids with the Spanish flag and came near making them surrender it. That's why they call us the Pirates."

The two cousins came to a tiny, squalid district.

"This is the Casa del Cabrero," said Vidal. "And here are our chums."

So it proved; the entire pirate gang was here encamped. Manuel now made the acquaintance of El Bizco, a cross-eyed species of chimpanzee, square-shaped, husky, long-armed, with misshapen legs and huge red hands.

"This is my cousin," added Vidal, introducing Manuel to the gang; and then, to make him seem interesting, he told how Manuel had come to the house with two immense lumps that he had received in a Homeric struggle with a man.

Bizco stared closely at Manuel, and seeing that Manuel, on his side, was observing him calmly, averted his gaze. Bizco's face possessed the interest of a queer animal or of a pathological specimen. His narrow forehead, his flat nose, his thick lips, his freckled skin and his red, wiry hair lent him the appearance of a huge, red baboon.

As soon as Vidal had arrived, the gang mobilized and all the ragamuffins went foraging through la Casa del Cabrero.

This was the name given to a group of low tenement hovels that bounded a long, narrow patio. At this hot hour the men and women, stretched out half naked on the ground, were sleeping in the shade as in a trance. Some women, in shifts, huddled into a circle of four or five, were smoking the same cigar, each taking a puff and passing it along from hand to hand.

A swarm of naked brats infested the place; they were the colour of the soil, most of them black, some fair, with blue eyes. As if already they felt the degradation of their poverty, these urchins neither shouted nor frolicked about the yard.

A few lasses of ten to fourteen were chatting in a group. Bizco, Vidal and the rest of the gang gave chase to them around the patio. The girls, half naked, dashed off, shrieking and shouting insults.

Bizco boasted that he had violated some of the girls.

"They're all puchereras like the ones on Ceres Street," said one of the Pirates.

"So they make pots, do they?" inquired Manuel.

"Yes. Fine pots, all right!"

"Then why do you call them puchereras?"

"Becau—" added the urchin, and he made a coarse gesture.

"Because they're a sly bunch," stammered Bizco. "You're awful simple."

Manuel contemplated Bizco scornfully, and asked his cousin:

"Do you mean to say that those little girls...?"

"They and their mothers," answered Vidal philosophically. "Almost all of 'em that live here."

The Pirates left the Casa del Cabrero, descended an embarkment after passing a high, black fence, and at the middle of Casa Blanca turned into the Paseo de Yeserias.

They approached the morgue, a white structure near the river, situated at the foot of the Dehesa del Canal. They circled around it, trying to catch a glimpse of some corpse, but the windows were closed.

They continued along the banks of the Manzanares, amidst the twisted pines of la Dehesa. The river ran very thin, consisting of a few threads of murky water and pools above the mud.

At the end of the Dehesa de la Arganzuela, opposite a large, spacious lot surrounded by a fence made of flattened oil cans nailed to posts, the gang paused to inspect the place, whose wide area was taken up with watering-carts, mechanical sweepers, ditch pumps, heaps of brooms and other tools and appurtenances of municipal cleanliness.

In one corner of the lot arose a white edifice that, judging from its two towers and the vacant belfries, had formerly been a church or a convent.

The gang went nosing about the place and passed under an arch bearing the inscription: "Stallion Stables." Behind the structure that looked like a convent they came upon some shanties furnished with filthy, grimy mats: African huts built upon a framework of rough sticks and cane.

Bizco went into one of these hovels and returned with a piece of cod in his hand.

Manuel was overcome by a horrible fear.

"I'm going," he said to Vidal.

"What do you mean!..." exclaimed one of the gang ironically. "Much nerve you've got!"

All at once another of the urchins cried:

"Skip. Somebody's coming!"

The pirates started on a run down the Paseo del Canal.

Madrid, with its yellowish dwellings veiled in a cloud of dust, came into view. The high window-panes were aglow with the reflection of the setting sun. From the Paseo del Canal, crossing a stubble patch, they reached the Plaza de las Penuelas, then, after going up another street they climbed the Paseo de las Acacias.

They entered the Corralon. Manuel and Vidal, after having arranged to meet the gang on the following Sunday, climbed the stairway to Senor Ignacio's house and as they drew near to the cobbler's door they heard cries.

"Father's giving the old lady a beating," murmured Vidal. "There won't be much to eat today. I'm going off to sleep."

"And how do I get to the other house?" asked Manuel.

"All you have to do is walk along the Ronda until you reach the Aguila street stairway. You can't miss it."

Manuel followed the directions. It was fearfully hot; the air was thick with dust. A few men were playing cards in tavern doorways, and in others they were dancing in embrace to the strains of a barrel-organ.

When Manuel reached the Aguila Street stairway it was getting dark. He sat down to rest a while in the Campillo de Gil Imon. From this elevated point could be seen the yellowish country, growing darker and darker with approaching night, and the chimneys and housetops sharply outlined against the horizon. The sky, blue and green above, was flushed with red nearer the earth; it darkened and assumed sinister hues,—coppery reds, purplish reds.

Above the mudwalls jutted the turrets and the cypresses of San Isidro cemetery; a round cupola stood out clearly in the atmosphere; at its top rose an angel with wings outspread, as if about to take flight against the flaming, blood-red background of evening.

Above the embanked clouds of the twilight shone a pale star in a green border, and on the horizon, animated by the last breath of day, could be discerned the hazy silhouettes of distant mountains.



CHAPTER II

The "Big Yard," or Uncle Rilo's House—Local Enmities.

When Salome finished her sewing and went off to Aguila Street to sleep, Manuel definitively settled in the home of Uncle Rilo, of Embajadores lane. Some called this La Corrala, others, El Corralon, still others, La Piltra, and it boasted so many other names that it seemed as if the neighbours spent hours and hours thinking up new designations for it.

The Corralon (Big yard)—this was the best known name of Uncle Rilo's lair,—fronted the Paseo de las Acacias, but it was not in the direct line of this thoroughfare, as it set somewhat back. The facade of this tenement, low, narrow, kalso-mined, indicated neither the depth nor the size of the building; the front revealed a few ill-shaped windows and holes unevenly arranged, while a doorless archway gave access to a narrow passage paved with cobblestones; this, soon widening, formed a patio surrounded by high, gloomy walls.

From the sides of the narrow entrance passage rose brick stairways leading to open galleries that ran along the three stories of the house and returned to the patio. At intervals, in the back of these galleries, opened rows of doors painted blue with a black number on the lintel of each.

Between the lime and the bricks of the walls stuck out, like exposed bones, jamb-posts and crossbeams, surrounded by lean bass ropes. The gallery columns, as well as the lintels and the beams that supported them, must formerly have been painted green, but as the result of the constant action of sun and rain only a stray patch of the original colour remained.

The courtyard was always filthy; in one corner lay a heap of useless scraps covered by a sheet of zinc; one could make out grimy cloths, decayed planks, debris, bricks, tiles, baskets: an infernal jumble. Every afternoon some of the women would do their washing in the patio, and when they finished their work they would empty their tubs on to the ground, and the big pools, on drying, would leave white stains and indigo rills of bluing. The neighbours also had the habit of throwing their rubbish anywhere at all, and when it rained—since the mouth of the drain would always become clogged—an unbearable, pestilential odour would rise from the black, stagnant stream that inundated the patio, and on its surface floated cabbage leaves and greasy papers.

1  2  3  4  5     Next Part
Home - Random Browse