It was about seven o’clock in the morning when Fray Salvi finished celebrating his last mass, having offered up three in the space of an hour. “The padre is ill,” commented the pious women. “He doesn’t move about with his usual slowness and elegance of manner.”
He took off his vestments without the least comment, without saying a word or looking at any one. “Attention!” whispered the sacristans among themselves. “The devil’s to pay! It’s going to rain fines, and all on account of those two brothers.”
He left the sacristy to go up into the rectory, in the hallway of which there awaited him some seven or eight women seated upon benches and a man who was pacing back and forth. Upon seeing him approach, the women arose and one of them pressed forward to kiss his hand, but the holy man made a sign of impatience that stopped her short.
“Can it be that you’ve lost a real, kuriput?” exclaimed the woman with a jesting laugh, offended at such a reception. “Not to give his hand to me, Matron of the Sisterhood, Sister Rufa!” It was an unheard-of proceeding.
“He didn’t go into the confessional this morning,” added Sister Sipa, a toothless old woman. “I wanted to confess myself so as to receive communion and get the indulgences.”
“Well, I’m sorry for you,” commented a young woman with a frank face. “This week I earned three plenary indulgences and dedicated them to the soul of my husband.”
“Badly done, Sister Juana,” said the offended Rufa. “One plenary indulgence was enough to get him out of purgatory. You ought not to squander the holy indulgences. Do as I do.”
“I thought, so many more the better,” answered the simple Sister Juana, smiling. “But tell me what you do.”
Sister Rufa did not answer at once. First, she asked for a buyo and chewed at it, gazed at her audience, which was listening attentively, then spat to one side and commenced, chewing at the buyo meanwhile: “I don’t misspend one holy day! Since I’ve belonged to the Sisterhood I’ve earned four hundred and fifty-seven plenary indulgences, seven hundred sixty thousand five hundred and ninety-eight years of indulgence. I set down all that I earn, for I like to have clean accounts. I don’t want to cheat or be cheated.”
Here Sister Rufa paused to give more attention to her chewing. The women gazed at her in admiration, but the man who was pacing back and forth remarked with some disdain, “Well, this year I’ve gained four plenary indulgences more than you have, Sister Rufa, and a hundred years more, and that without praying much either.”
“More than I? More than six hundred and eighty-nine plenary indulgences or nine hundred ninety-four thousand eight hundred and fifty-six years?” queried Rufa, somewhat disgruntled.
“That’s it, eight indulgences and a hundred fifteen years more and a few months over,” answered the man, from whose neck hung soiled scapularies and rosaries.
“That’s not strange!” admitted Rufa, at last admitting defeat. “You’re an expert, the best in the province.”
The flattered man smiled and continued, “It isn’t so wonderful that I earn more than you do. Why, I can almost say that even when sleeping I earn indulgences.”
“And what do you do with them, sir?” asked four or five voices at the same time.
“Pish!” answered the man with a gesture of proud disdain. “I have them to throw away!”
“But in that I can’t commend you, sir,” protested Rufa. “You’ll go to purgatory for wasting the indulgences. You know very well that for every idle word one must suffer forty days in fire, according to the curate; for every span of thread uselessly wasted, sixty days; and for every drop of water spilled, twenty. You’ll go to purgatory.”
“Well, I’ll know how to get out,” answered Brother Pedro with sublime confidence. “How many souls have I saved from the flames! How many saints have I made! Besides, even in articulo mortis I can still earn, if I wish, at least seven plenary indulgences and shall be able to save others as I die.” So saying, he strode proudly away.
Sister Rufa turned to the others: “Nevertheless, you must do as I do, for I don’t lose a single day and I keep my accounts well. I don’t want to cheat or be cheated.”
“Well, what do you do?” asked Juana.
“You must imitate what I do. For example, suppose I earn a year of indulgence: I set it down in my account-book and say, ‘Most Blessed Father and Lord St. Dominic, please see if there is anybody in purgatory who needs exactly a year—neither a day more nor a day less.’ Then I play heads and tails: if it comes heads, no; if tails, yes. Let’s suppose that it comes tails, then I write down paid; if it comes heads, then I keep the indulgence. In this way I arrange groups of a hundred years each, of which I keep a careful account. It’s a pity that we can’t do with them as with money—put them out at interest, for in that way we should be able to save more souls. Believe me, and do as I do.”
“Well, I do it a better way,” remarked Sister Sipa.
“What? Better?” demanded the astonished Rufa. “That can’t be! My system can’t be improved upon!”
“Listen a moment and you’ll be convinced, Sister,” said old Sipa in a tone of vexation.
“How is it? Let’s hear!” exclaimed the others.
After coughing ceremoniously the old woman began with great care: “You know very well that by saying the Bendita sea tu pureza and the Señor mío Jesucristo, Padre dulcísimo por el gozo, ten years are gained for each letter—”
“Twenty!” “No, less!” “Five!” interrupted several voices.
“A few years more or less make no difference. Now, when a servant breaks a plate, a glass, or a cup, I make him pick up the pieces; and for every scrap, even the very smallest, he has to recite for me one of those prayers. The indulgences that I earn in this way I devote to the souls. Every one in my house, except the cats, understands this system.”
“But those indulgences are earned by the servants and not by you, Sister Sipa,” objected Rufa.
“And my cups and plates, who pays for them? The servants are glad to pay for them in that way and it suits me also. I never resort to blows, only sometimes a pinch, or a whack on the head.”
“I’m going to do as you do!” “I’ll do the same!” “And I!” exclaimed the women.
“But suppose the plate is only broken into two or three pieces, then you earn very few,” observed the obstinate Rufa.
“Abá!” answered old Sipa. “I make them recite the prayers anyhow. Then I glue the pieces together again and so lose nothing.”
Sister Rufa had no more objections left.
“Allow me to ask about a doubt of mine,” said young Juana timidly. “You ladies understand so well these matters of heaven, purgatory, and hell, while I confess that I’m ignorant. Often I find in the novenas and other books this direction: three paternosters, three Ave Marias, and three Gloria Patris—”
“Now I want to know how they should be recited: whether three paternosters in succession, three Ave Marias in succession, and three Gloria Patris in succession; or a paternoster, an Ave Maria, and a Gloria Patri together, three times?”
“This way: a paternoster three times—”
“Pardon me, Sister Sipa,” interrupted Rufa, “they must be recited in the other way. You mustn’t mix up males and females. The paternosters are males, the Ave Marias are females, and the Gloria Patris are the children.”
“Eh? Excuse me, Sister Rufa: paternoster, Ave Maria, and Gloria are like rice, meat, and sauce—a mouthful for the saints—”
“You’re wrong! You’ll see, for you who pray that way will never get what you ask for.”
“And you who pray the other way won’t get anything from your novenas,” replied old Sipa.
“Who won’t?” asked Rufa, rising. “A short time ago I lost a little pig, I prayed to St. Anthony and found it, and then I sold it for a good price. Abá!”
“Yes? Then that’s why one of your neighbors was saying that you sold a pig of hers.”
“Who? The shameless one! Perhaps I’m like you—”
Here the expert had to interfere to restore peace, for no one was thinking any more about paternosters—the talk was all about pigs. “Come, come, there mustn’t be any quarrel over a pig, Sisters! The Holy Scriptures give us an example to follow. The heretics and Protestants didn’t quarrel with Our Lord for driving into the water a herd of swine that belonged to them, and we that are Christians and besides, Brethren of the Holy Rosary, shall we have hard words on account of a little pig! What would our rivals, the Tertiary Brethren, say?”
All became silent before such wisdom, at the same time fearing what the Tertiary Brethren might say. The expert, well satisfied with such acquiescence, changed his tone and continued: “Soon the curate will send for us. We must tell him which preacher we’ve chosen of the three that he suggested yesterday, whether Padre Damaso, Padre Martin, or the coadjutor. I don’t know whether the Tertiary Brethren have yet made any choice, so we must decide.”
“The coadjutor,” murmured Juana timidly.
“Ahem! The coadjutor doesn’t know how to preach,” declared Sipa. “Padre Martin is better.”
“Padre Martin!” exclaimed another disdainfully. “He hasn’t any voice. Padre Damaso would be better.”
“That’s right!” cried Rufa. “Padre Damaso surely does know how to preach! He looks like a comedian!”
“But we don’t understand him,” murmured Juana.
“Because he’s very deep! And as he preaches well—”
This speech was interrupted by the arrival of Sisa, who was carrying a basket on her head. She saluted the Sisters and went on up the stairway.
“She’s going in! Let’s go in too!” they exclaimed. Sisa felt her heart beating violently as she ascended the stairs. She did not know just what to say to the padre to placate his wrath or what reasons she could advance in defense of her son. That morning at the first flush of dawn she had gone into her garden to pick the choicest vegetables, which she placed in a basket among banana-leaves and flowers; then she had looked along the bank of the river for the pakó which she knew the curate liked for salads. Putting on her best clothes and without awakening her son, she had set out for the town with the basket on her head. As she went up the stairway she, tried to make as little noise as possible and listened attentively in the hope that she might hear a fresh, childish voice, so well known to her. But she heard nothing nor did she meet any one as she made her way to the kitchen. There she looked into all the corners. The servants and sacristans received her coldly, scarcely acknowledging her greeting.
“Where can I put these vegetables?” she asked, not taking any offense at their coldness.
“There, anywhere!” growled the cook, hardly looking at her as he busied himself in picking the feathers from a capon.
With great care Sisa arranged the vegetables and the salad leaves on the table, placing the flowers above them. Smiling, she then addressed one of the servants, who seemed to be more approachable than the cook: “May I speak with the padre?”
“He’s sick,” was the whispered answer.
“And Crispin? Do you know if he is in the sacristy?” The servant looked surprised and wrinkled his eyebrows. “Crispin? Isn’t he at your house? Do you mean to deny it?”
“Basilio is at home, but Crispin stayed here,” answered Sisa, “and I want to see him.”
“Yes, he stayed, but afterwards he ran away, after stealing a lot of things. Early this morning the curate ordered me to go and report it to the Civil Guard. They must have gone to your house already to hunt for the boys.”
Sisa covered her ears and opened her mouth to speak, but her lips moved without giving out any sound.
“A pretty pair of sons you have!” exclaimed the cook. “It’s plain that you’re a faithful wife, the sons are so like the father. Take care that the younger doesn’t surpass him.”
Sisa broke out into bitter weeping and let herself fall upon a bench.
“Don’t cry here!” yelled the cook. “Don’t you know that the padre’s sick? Get out in the street and cry!”
The unfortunate mother was almost shoved down the stairway at the very time when the Sisters were coming down, complaining and making conjectures about the curate’s illness, so she hid her face in her pañuelo and suppressed the sounds of her grief. Upon reaching the street she looked about uncertainly for a moment and then, as if having reached a decision, walked rapidly away.