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Chapter 25: In the House of the Sage


On the morning of the following day, Ibarra, after visiting his lands, made his way to the home of old Tasio. Complete stillness reigned in the garden, for even the swallows circling about the eaves scarcely made any noise. Moss grew on the old wall, over which a kind of ivy clambered to form borders around the windows. The little house seemed to be the abode of silence.
Ibarra hitched his horse carefully to a post and walking almost on tiptoe crossed the clean and well-kept garden to the stairway, which he ascended, and as the door was open, he entered. The first sight that met his gaze was the old man bent over a book in which he seemed to be writing. On the walls were collections of insects and plants arranged among maps and stands filled with books and manuscripts. The old man was so absorbed in his work that he did not notice the presence of the youth until the latter, not wishing to disturb him, tried to retire.
“Ah, you here?” he asked, gazing at Ibarra with a strange expression. “Excuse me,” answered the youth, “I see that you’re very busy—”
“True, I was writing a little, but it’s not urgent, and I want to rest. Can I do anything for you?”
“A great deal,” answered Ibarra, drawing nearer, “but—”
A glance at the book on the table caused him to exclaim in surprise, “What, are you given to deciphering hieroglyphics?”
“No,” replied the old man, as he offered his visitor a chair. “I don’t understand Egyptian or Coptic either, but I know something about the system of writing, so I write in hieroglyphics.”
“You write in hieroglyphics! Why?” exclaimed the youth, doubting what he saw and heard.
“So that I cannot be read now.”
Ibarra gazed at him fixedly, wondering to himself if the old man were not indeed crazy. He examined the book rapidly to learn if he was telling the truth and saw neatly drawn figures of animals, circles, semicircles, flowers, feet, hands, arms, and such things.
“But why do you write if you don’t want to be read?”
“Because I’m not writing for this generation, but for other ages. If this generation could read, it would burn my books, the labor of my whole life. But the generation that deciphers these characters will be an intelligent generation, it will understand and say, ‘Not all were asleep in the night of our ancestors!’ The mystery of these curious characters will save my work from the ignorance of men, just as the mystery of strange rites has saved many truths from the destructive priestly classes.”
“In what language do you write?” asked Ibarra after a pause.
“In our own, Tagalog.”
“Are the hieroglyphical signs suitable?”
“If it were not for the difficulty of drawing them, which takes time and patience, I would almost say that they are more suitable than the Latin alphabet. The ancient Egyptian had our vowels; our o, which is only final and is not like that of the Spanish, which is a vowel between o and u. Like us, the Egyptians lacked the true sound of e, and in their language are found our ha and kha, which we do not have in the Latin alphabet such as is used in Spanish. For example, in this word mukha,” he went on, pointing to the book, “I transcribe the syllable ha more correctly with the figure of a fish than with the Latin h, which in Europe is pronounced in different ways. For a weaker aspirate, as for example in this word haín, where the h has less force, I avail myself of this lion’s head or of these three lotus flowers, according to the quantity of the vowel. Besides, I have the nasal sound which does not exist in the Latin-Spanish alphabet. I repeat that if it were not for the difficulty of drawing them exactly, these hieroglyphics could almost be adopted, but this same difficulty obliges me to be concise and not say more than what is exact and necessary. Moreover, this work keeps me company when my guests from China and Japan go away.”
“Your guests from China and Japan?”
“Don’t you hear them? My guests are the swallows. This year one of them is missing—some bad boy in China or Japan must have caught it.”
“How do you know that they come from those countries?”
“Easily enough! Several years ago, before they left I tied to the foot of each one a slip of paper with the name ‘Philippines’ in English on it, supposing that they must not travel very far and because English is understood nearly everywhere. For years my slips brought no reply, so that at last I had it written in Chinese and here in the following November they have returned with other notes which I have had deciphered. One is written in Chinese and is a greeting from the banks of the Hoang-Ho and the other, as the Chinaman whom I consulted supposes, must be in Japanese. But I’m taking your time with these things and haven’t asked you what I can do for you.”
“I’ve come to speak to you about a matter of importance,” said the youth. “Yesterday afternoon—”
“Have they caught that poor fellow?”
“You mean Elias? How did you know about him?”
“I saw the Muse of the Civil Guard!”
“The Muse of the Civil Guard? Who is she?”
“The alferez’s woman, whom you didn’t invite to your picnic. Yesterday morning the incident of the cayman became known through the town. The Muse of the Civil Guard is as astute as she is malignant and she guessed that the pilot must be the bold person who threw her husband into the mudhole and who assaulted Padre Damaso. As she reads all the reports that her husband is to receive, scarcely had he got back home, drunk and not knowing what he was doing, when to revenge herself on you she sent the sergeant with the soldiers to disturb the merriment of your picnic. Be careful! Eve was a good woman, sprung from the hands of God—they say that Doña Consolacion is evil and it’s not known whose hands she came from! In order to be good, a woman needs to have been, at least sometime, either a maid or a mother.”
Ibarra smiled slightly and replied by taking some documents from his pocketbook. “My dead father used to consult you in some things and I recall that he had only to congratulate himself on following your advice. I have on hand a little enterprise, the success of which I must assure.” Here he explained briefly his plan for the school, which he had offered to his fiancée, spreading out in view of the astonished Sage some plans which had been prepared in Manila.
“I would like to have you advise me as to what persons in the town I must first win over in order to assure the success of the undertaking. You know the inhabitants well, while I have just arrived and am almost a stranger in my own country.”
Old Tasio examined the plans before him with tear-dimmed eyes. “What you are going to do has been my dream, the dream of a poor lunatic!” he exclaimed with emotion. “And now the first thing that I advise you to do is never to come to consult with me.”
The youth gazed at him in surprise.
“Because the sensible people,” he continued with bitter irony, “would take you for a madman also. The people consider madmen those who do not think as they do, so they hold me as such, which I appreciate, because the day in which they think me returned to sanity, they will deprive me of the little liberty that I’ve purchased at the expense of the reputation of being a sane individual. And who knows but they are right? I do not live according to their rules, my principles and ideals are different. The gobernadorcillo enjoys among them the reputation of being a wise man because he learned nothing more than to serve chocolate and to put up with Padre Damaso’s bad humor, so now he is wealthy, he disturbs the petty destinies of his fellow-townsmen, and at times he even talks of justice. ‘That’s a man of talent,’ think the vulgar, ‘look how from nothing he has made himself great!’ But I, I inherited fortune and position, I have studied, and now I am poor, I am not trusted with the most ridiculous office, and all say, ‘He’s a fool! He doesn’t know how to live!’ The curate calls me ‘philosopher’ as a nickname and gives to understand that I am a charlatan who is making a show of what I learned in the higher schools, when that is exactly what benefits me the least. Perhaps I really am the fool and they the wise ones—who can say?”
The old man shook his head as if to drive away that thought, and continued: “The second thing I can advise is that you consult the curate, the gobernadorcillo, and all persons in authority. They will give you bad, stupid, or useless advice, but consultation doesn’t mean compliance, although you should make it appear that you are taking their advice and acting according to it.”
Ibarra reflected a moment before he replied: “The advice is good, but difficult to follow. Couldn’t I go ahead with my idea without a shadow being thrown upon it? Couldn’t a worthy enterprise make its way over everything, since truth doesn’t need to borrow garments from error?”
“Nobody loves the naked truth!” answered the old man. “That is good in theory and practicable in the world of which youth dreams. Here is the schoolmaster, who has struggled in a vacuum; with the enthusiasm of a child, he has sought the good, yet he has won only jests and laughter. You have said that you are a stranger in your own country, and I believe it. The very first day you arrived you began by wounding the vanity of a priest who is regarded by the people as a saint, and as a sage among his fellows. God grant that such a misstep may not have already determined your future! Because the Dominicans and Augustinians look with disdain on the guingón habit, the rope girdle, and the immodest foot-wear, because a learned doctor in Santo Tomas1 may have once recalled that Pope Innocent III described the statutes of that order as more fit for hogs than men, don’t believe but that all of them work hand in hand to affirm what a preacher once said, ‘The most insignificant lay brother can do more than the government with all its soldiers!’ Cave ne cadas!2 Gold is powerful—the golden calf has thrown God down from His altars many times, and that too since the days of Moses!”
“I’m not so pessimistic nor does life appear to me so perilous in my country,” said Ibarra with a smile. “I believe that those fears are somewhat exaggerated and I hope to be able to carry out my plans without meeting any great opposition in that quarter.”
“Yes, if they extend their hands to you; no, if they withhold them. All your efforts will be shattered against the walls of the rectory if the friar so much as waves his girdle or shakes his habit; tomorrow the alcalde will on some pretext deny you what today he has granted; no mother will allow her son to attend the school, and then all your labors will produce a counter-effect—they will dishearten those who afterwards may wish to attempt altruistic undertakings.”
 “But, after all,” replied the youth, “I can’t believe in that power of which you speak, and even supposing it to exist and making allowance for it, I should still have on my side the sensible people and the government, which is animated by the best intentions, which has great hopes, and which frankly desires the welfare of the Philippines.”
“The government! The government!” muttered the Sage, raising his eyes to stare at the ceiling. “However inspired it may be with the desire for fostering the greatness of the country for the benefit of the country itself and of the mother country, however some official or other may recall the generous spirit of the Catholic Kings3 and may agree with it, too, the government sees nothing, hears nothing, nor does it decide anything, except what the curate or the Provincial causes it to see, hear, and decide. The government is convinced that it depends for its salvation wholly on them, that it is sustained because they uphold it, and that the day on which they cease to support it, it will fall like a manikin that has lost its prop. They intimidate the government with an uprising of the people and the people with the forces of the government, whence originates a simple game, very much like what happens to timid persons when they visit gloomy places, taking for ghosts their own shadows and for strange voices the echoes of their own. As long as the government does not deal directly with the country it will not get away from this tutelage, it will live like those imbecile youths who tremble at the voice of their tutor, whose kindness they are begging for. The government has no dream of a healthy future; it is the arm, while the head is the convento. By this inertia with which it allows itself to be dragged from depth to depth, it becomes changed into a shadow, its integrity is impaired, and in a weak and incapable way it trusts everything to mercenary hands. But compare our system of government with those of the countries you have visited—”
“Oh!” interrupted Ibarra, “that’s asking too much! Let us content ourselves with observing that our people do not complain or suffer as do the people of other countries, thanks to Religion and the benignity of the governing powers.
“This people does not complain because it has no voice, it does not move because it is lethargic, and you say that it does not suffer because you haven’t seen how its heart bleeds. But some day you will see this, you will hear its complaints, and then woe unto those who found their strength on ignorance and fanaticism! Woe unto those who rejoice in deceit and labor during the night, believing that all are asleep! When the light of day shows up the monsters of darkness, the frightful reaction will come. So many sighs suppressed, so much poison distilled drop by drop, so much force repressed for centuries, will come to light and burst! Who then will pay those accounts which oppressed peoples present from time to time and which History preserves for us on her bloody pages?”
“God, the government, and Religion will not allow that day to come!” replied Ibarra, impressed in spite of himself. “The Philippines is religious and loves Spain, the Philippines will realize how much the nation is doing for her. There are abuses, yes, there are defects, that cannot be denied, but Spain is laboring to introduce reforms that will correct these abuses and defects, she is formulating plans, she is not selfish!”
“I know it, and that is the worst of it! The reforms which emanate from the higher places are annulled in the lower circles, thanks to the vices of all, thanks, for instance, to the eager desire to get rich in a short time, and to the ignorance of the people, who consent to everything. A royal decree does not correct abuses when there is no zealous authority to watch over its execution, while freedom of speech against the insolence of petty tyrants is not conceded. Plans will remain plans, abuses will still be abuses, and the satisfied ministry will sleep in peace in spite of everything. Moreover, if perchance there does come into a high place a person with great and generous ideas, he will begin to hear, while behind his back he is considered a fool, ‘Your Excellency does not know the country, your Excellency does not understand the character of the Indians, your Excellency is going to ruin them, your Excellency will do well to trust So-and-so,’ and his Excellency in fact does not know the country, for he has been until now stationed in America, and besides that, he has all the shortcomings and weaknesses of other men, so he allows himself to be convinced. His Excellency also remembers that to secure the appointment he has had to sweat much and suffer more, that he holds it for only three years, that he is getting old and that it is necessary to think, not of quixotisms, but of the future: a modest mansion in Madrid, a cozy house in the country, and a good income in order to live in luxury at the capital—these are what he must look for in the Philippines. Let us not ask for miracles, let us not ask that he who comes as an outsider to make his fortune and go away afterwards should interest himself in the welfare of the country. What matters to him the gratitude or the curses of a people whom he does not know, in a country where he has no associations, where he has no affections? Fame to be sweet must resound in the ears of those we love, in the atmosphere of our home or of the land that will guard our ashes; we wish that fame should hover over our tomb to warm with its breath the chill of death, so that we may not be completely reduced to nothingness, that something of us may survive. Naught of this can we offer to those who come to watch over our destinies. And the worst of all this is that they go away just when they are beginning to get an understanding of their duties. But we are getting away from our subject.”
“But before getting back to it I must make some things plain,” interrupted the youth eagerly. “I can admit that the government does not know the people, but I believe that the people know the government even less. There are useless officials, bad ones, if you wish, but there are also good ones, and if these are unable to do anything it is because they meet with an inert mass, the people, who take little part in the affairs that concern them. But I didn’t come to hold a discussion with you on that point, I came to ask for advice and you tell me to lower my head before grotesque idols!”
“Yes, I repeat it, because here you must either lower your head or lose it.”
“Either lower my head or lose it!” repeated Ibarra thoughtfully. “The dilemma is hard! But why? Is love for my country incompatible with love for Spain? Is it necessary to debase oneself to be a good Christian, to prostitute one’s conscience in order to carry out a good purpose? I love my native land, the Philippines, because to it I owe my life and my happiness, because every man should love his country. I love Spain, the fatherland of my ancestors, because in spite of everything the Philippines owes to it, and will continue to owe, her happiness and her future. I am a Catholic, I preserve pure the faith of my fathers, and I do not see why I have to lower my head when I can raise it, to give it over to my enemies when I can humble them!”
“Because the field in which you wish to sow is in possession of your enemies and against them you are powerless. It is necessary that you first kiss the hand that—”
But the youth let him go no farther, exclaiming passionately, “Kiss their hands! You forget that among them they killed my father and threw his body from the tomb! I who am his son do not forget it, and that I do not avenge it is because I have regard for the good name of the Church!”
The old Sage bowed his head as he answered slowly: “Señor Ibarra, if you preserve those memories, which I cannot counsel you to forget, abandon the enterprise you are undertaking and seek in some other way the welfare of your countrymen. The enterprise needs another man, because to make it a success zeal and money alone are not sufficient; in our country are required also self-denial, tenacity of purpose, and faith, for the soil is not ready, it is only sown with discord.”
Ibarra appreciated the value of these observations, but still would not be discouraged. The thought of Maria Clara was in his mind and his promise must be fulfilled.
“Doesn’t your experience suggest any other than this hard means?” he asked in a low voice.
The old man took him by the arm and led him to the window. A fresh breeze, the precursor of the north wind, was blowing, and before their eyes spread out the garden bounded by the wide forest that was a kind of park.
“Why can we not do as that weak stalk laden with flowers and buds does?” asked the Sage, pointing to a beautiful jasmine plant. “The wind blows and shakes it and it bows its head as if to hide its precious load. If the stalk should hold itself erect it would be broken, its flowers would be scattered by the wind, and its buds would be blighted. The wind passes by and the stalk raises itself erect, proud of its treasure, yet who will blame it for having bowed before necessity? There you see that gigantic kupang, which majestically waves its light foliage wherein the eagle builds his nest. I brought it from the forest as a weak sapling and braced its stem for months with slender pieces of bamboo. If I had transplanted it large and full of life, it is certain that it would not have lived here, for the wind would have thrown it down before its roots could have fixed themselves in the soil, before it could have become accustomed to its surroundings, and before it could have secured sufficient nourishment for its size and height. So you, transplanted from Europe to this stony soil, may end, if you do not seek support and do not humble yourself. You are among evil conditions, alone, elevated, the ground shakes, the sky presages a storm, and the top of your family tree has shown that it draws the thunderbolt. It is not courage, but foolhardiness, to fight alone against all that exists. No one censures the pilot who makes for a port at the first gust of the whirlwind. To stoop as the bullet passes is not cowardly—it is worse to defy it only to fall, never to rise again.”
“But could this sacrifice produce the fruit that I hope for?” asked Ibarra. “Would the priest believe in me and forget the affront? Would they aid me frankly in behalf of the education that contests with the conventos the wealth of the country? Can they not pretend friendship, make a show of protection, and yet underneath in the shadows fight it, undermine it, wound it in the heel, in order to weaken it quicker than by attacking it in front? Granted the previous actions which you surmise, anything may be expected!”
The old man remained silent from inability to answer these questions. After meditating for some time, he said: “If such should happen, if the enterprise should fail, you would be consoled by the thought that you had done what was expected of you and thus something would be gained. You would have placed the first stone, you would have sown the seed, and after the storm had spent itself perhaps some grain would have survived the catastrophe to grow and save the species from destruction and to serve afterwards as the seed for the sons of the dead sower. The example may encourage others who are only afraid to begin.”
Weighing these reasons, Ibarra realized the situation and saw that with all the old man’s pessimism there was a great deal of truth in what he said.
“I believe you!” he exclaimed, pressing the old man’s hand. “Not in vain have I looked to you for advice. This very day I’ll go and reach an understanding with the curate, who, after all is said, has done me no wrong and who must be good, since all of them are not like the persecutor of my father. I have, besides, to interest him in behalf of that unfortunate madwoman and her sons. I put my trust in God and men!”
After taking leave of the old man he mounted his horse and rode away. As the pessimistic Sage followed him with his gaze, he muttered: “Now let’s watch how Destiny will unfold the drama that began in the cemetery.” But for once he was greatly mistaken—the drama had begun long before!

1 The College of Santo Tomas was established in 1619 through a legacy of books and money left for that purpose by Fray Miguel de Benavides, O. P., second archbishop of Manila. By royal decree and papal bull, it became in 1645 the Royal and Pontifical University of Santo Tomas, and never, during the Spanish régime, got beyond the Thomistic theology in its courses of instruction.—TR.
2 Take heed lest you fall!
3 Ferdinand and Isabella, the builders of Spain’s greatness, are known in Spanish history as “Los Reyes Católicos.”—TR.


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