Reluctantly, and almost with tearful eyes, Placido Penitente was going along the Escolta on his way to the University of Santo Tomas. It had hardly been a week since he had come from his town, yet he had already written to his mother twice, reiterating his desire to abandon his studies and go back there to work. His mother answered that he should have patience, that at the least he must be graduated as a bachelor of arts, since it would be unwise to desert his books after four years of expense and sacrifices on both their parts.
Whence came to Penitente this aversion to study, when he had been one of the most diligent in the famous college conducted by Padre Valerio in Tanawan? There Penitente had been considered one of the best Latinists and the subtlest disputants, one who could tangle or untangle the simplest as well as the most abstruse questions. His townspeople considered him very clever, and his curate, influenced by that opinion, already classified him as a filibuster—a sure proof that he was neither foolish nor incapable. His friends could not explain those desires for abandoning his studies and returning: he had no sweethearts, was not a gambler, hardly knew anything about hunkían and rarely tried his luck at the more familiar revesino. He did not believe in the advice of the curates, laughed at Tandang Basio Macunat, had plenty of money and good clothes, yet he went to school reluctantly and looked with repugnance on his books.
On the Bridge of Spain, a bridge whose name alone came from Spain, since even its ironwork came from foreign countries, he fell in with the long procession of young men on their way to the Walled City to their respective schools. Some were dressed in the European fashion and walked rapidly, carrying books and notes, absorbed in thoughts of their lessons and essays—these were the students of the Ateneo. Those from San Juan de Letran were nearly all dressed in the Filipino costume, but were more numerous and carried fewer books. Those from the University are dressed more carefully and elegantly and saunter along carrying canes instead of books. The collegians of the Philippines are not very noisy or turbulent. They move along in a preoccupied manner, such that upon seeing them one would say that before their eyes shone no hope, no smiling future. Even though here and there the line is brightened by the attractive appearance of the schoolgirls of the Escuela Municipal, with their sashes across their shoulders and their books in their hands, followed by their servants, yet scarcely a laugh resounds or a joke can be heard—nothing of song or jest, at best a few heavy jokes or scuffles among the smaller boys. The older ones nearly always proceed seriously and composedly, like the German students.
Placido was proceeding along the Paseo de Magallanes toward the breach—formerly the gate—of Santo Domingo, when he suddenly felt a slap on the shoulder, which made him turn quickly in ill humor.
“Hello, Penitente! Hello, Penitente!”
It was his schoolmate Juanito Pelaez, the barbero or pet of the professors, as big a rascal as he could be, with a roguish look and a clownish smile. The son of a Spanish mestizo—a rich merchant in one of the suburbs, who based all his hopes and joys on the boy’s talent—he promised well with his roguery, and, thanks to his custom of playing tricks on every one and then hiding behind his companions, he had acquired a peculiar hump, which grew larger whenever he was laughing over his deviltry.
“What kind of time did you have, Penitente?” was his question as he again slapped him on the shoulder.
“So, so,” answered Placido, rather bored. “And you?”
“Well, it was great! Just imagine—the curate of Tiani invited me to spend the vacation in his town, and I went. Old man, you know Padre Camorra, I suppose? Well, he’s a liberal curate, very jolly, frank, very frank, one of those like Padre Paco. As there were pretty girls, we serenaded them all, he with his guitar and songs and I with my violin. I tell you, old man, we had a great time—there wasn’t a house we didn’t try!”
He whispered a few words in Placido’s ear and then broke out into laughter. As the latter exhibited some surprise, he resumed: “I’ll swear to it! They can’t help themselves, because with a governmental order you get rid of the father, husband, or brother, and then—merry Christmas! However, we did run up against a little fool, the sweetheart, I believe, of Basilio, you know? Look, what a fool this Basilio is! To have a sweetheart who doesn’t know a word of Spanish, who hasn’t any money, and who has been a servant! She’s as shy as she can be, but pretty. Padre Camorra one night started to club two fellows who were serenading her and I don’t know how it was he didn’t kill them, yet with all that she was just as shy as ever. But it’ll result for her as it does with all the women, all of them!”
Juanito Pelaez laughed with a full mouth, as though he thought this a glorious thing, while Placido stared at him in disgust.
“Listen, what did the professor explain yesterday?” asked Juanito, changing the conversation.
“Yesterday there was no class.”
“Oho, and the day before yesterday?”
“Man, it was Thursday!”
“Right! What an ass I am! Don’t you know, Placido, that I’m getting to be a regular ass? What about Wednesday?”
“Wednesday? Wait—Wednesday, it was a little wet.”
“Fine! What about Tuesday, old man?”
“Tuesday was the professor’s nameday and we went to entertain him with an orchestra, present him flowers and some gifts.”
“Ah, carambas!” exclaimed Juanito, “that I should have forgotten about it! What an ass I am! Listen, did he ask for me?”
Penitente shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know, but they gave him a list of his entertainers.”
“Carambas! Listen—Monday, what happened?”
“As it was the first school-day, he called the roll and assigned the lesson—about mirrors. Look, from here to here, by memory, word for word. We jump all this section, we take that.” He was pointing out with his finger in the “Physics” the portions that were to be learned, when suddenly the book flew through the air, as a result of the slap Juanito gave it from below.
“Thunder, let the lessons go! Let’s have a dia pichido!”
The students in Manila call dia pichido a school-day that falls between two holidays and is consequently suppressed, as though forced out by their wish.
“Do you know that you really are an ass?” exclaimed Placido, picking up his book and papers.
“Let’s have a dia pichido!” repeated Juanito.
Placido was unwilling, since for only two the authorities were hardly going to suspend a class of more than a hundred and fifty. He recalled the struggles and privations his mother was suffering in order to keep him in Manila, while she went without even the necessities of life.
They were just passing through the breach of Santo Domingo, and Juanito, gazing across the little plaza in front of the old Customs building, exclaimed, “Now I think of it, I’m appointed to take up the collection.”
“For the monument.”
“Get out! For Padre Balthazar, you know.”
“And who was Padre Balthazar?”
“Fool! A Dominican, of course—that’s why the padres call on the students. Come on now, loosen up with three or four pesos, so that they may see we are sports. Don’t let them say afterwards that in order to erect a statue they had to dig down into their own pockets. Do, Placido, it’s not money thrown away.”
He accompanied these words with a significant wink. Placido recalled the case of a student who had passed through the entire course by presenting canary-birds, so he subscribed three pesos.
“Look now, I’ll write your name plainly so that the professor will read it, you see—Placido Penitente, three pesos. Ah, listen! In a couple of weeks comes the nameday of the professor of natural history. You know that he’s a good fellow, never marks absences or asks about the lesson. Man, we must show our appreciation!”
“Then don’t you think that we ought to give him a celebration? The orchestra must not be smaller than the one you had for the professor of physics.”
“What do you think about making the contribution two pesos? Come, Placido, you start it, so you’ll be at the head of the list.”
Then, seeing that Placido gave the two pesos without hesitation, he added, “Listen, put up four, and afterwards I’ll return you two. They’ll serve as a decoy.”
“Well, if you’re going to return them to me, why give them to you? It’ll be sufficient, for you to write four.”
“Ah, that’s right! What an ass I am! Do you know, I’m getting to be a regular ass! But let me have them anyhow, so that I can show them.”
Placido, in order not to give the lie to the priest who christened him, gave what was asked, just as they reached the University.
In the entrance and along the walks on each side of it were gathered the students, awaiting the appearance of the professors. Students of the preparatory year of law, of the fifth of the secondary course, of the preparatory in medicine, formed lively groups. The latter were easily distinguished by their clothing and by a certain air that was lacking in the others, since the greater part of them came from the Ateneo Municipal. Among them could be seen the poet Isagani, explaining to a companion the theory of the refraction of light. In another group they were talking, disputing, citing the statements of the professor, the text-books, and scholastic principles; in yet another they were gesticulating and waving their books in the air or making demonstrations with their canes by drawing diagrams on the ground; farther on, they were entertaining themselves in watching the pious women go into the neighboring church, all the students making facetious remarks. An old woman leaning on a young girl limped piously, while the girl moved along writh downcast eyes, timid and abashed to pass before so many curious eyes. The old lady, catching up her coffee-colored skirt, of the Sisterhood of St. Rita, to reveal her big feet and white stockings, scolded her companion and shot furious glances at the staring bystanders.
“The rascals!” she grunted. “Don’t look at them, keep your eyes down.”
Everything was noticed; everything called forth jokes and comments. Now it was a magnificent victoria which stopped at the door to set down a family of votaries on their way to visit the Virgin of the Rosary on her favorite day, while the inquisitive sharpened their eyes to get a glimpse of the shape and size of the young ladies’ feet as they got out of the carriages; now it was a student who came out of the door with devotion still shining in his eyes, for he had passed through the church to beg the Virgin’s help in understanding his lesson and to see if his sweetheart was there, to exchange a few glances with her and go on to his class with the recollection of her loving eyes.
Soon there was noticed some movement in the groups, a certain air of expectancy, while Isagani paused and turned pale. A carriage drawn by a pair of well-known white horses had stopped at the door. It was that of Paulita Gomez, and she had already jumped down, light as a bird, without giving the rascals time to see her foot. With a bewitching whirl of her body and a sweep of her hand she arranged the folds of her skirt, shot a rapid and apparently careless glance toward Isagani, spoke to him and smiled. Doña Victorina descended in her turn, gazed over her spectacles, saw Juanito Pelaez, smiled, and bowed to him affably.
Isagani, flushed with excitement, returned a timid salute, while Juanito bowed profoundly, took off his hat, and made the same gesture as the celebrated clown and caricaturist Panza when he received applause.
“Heavens, what a girl!” exclaimed one of the students, starting forward. “Tell the professor that I’m seriously ill.” So Tadeo, as this invalid youth was known, entered the church to follow the girl.
Tadeo went to the University every day to ask if the classes would be held and each time seemed to be more and more astonished that they would. He had a fixed idea of a latent and eternal holiday, and expected it to come any day. So each morning, after vainly proposing that they play truant, he would go away alleging important business, an appointment, or illness, just at the very moment when his companions were going to their classes. But by some occult, thaumaturgic art Tadeo passed the examinations, was beloved by the professors, and had before him a promising future.
Meanwhile, the groups began to move inside, for the professor of physics and chemistry had put in his appearance. The students appeared to be cheated in their hopes and went toward the interior of the building with exclamations of discontent. Placido went along with the crowd.
“Penitente, Penitente!” called a student with a certain mysterious air. “Sign this!”
“What is it?”
“Never mind—sign it!”
It seemed to Placido that some one was twitching his ears. He recalled the story of a cabeza de barangay in his town who, for having signed a document that he did not understand, was kept a prisoner for months and months, and came near to deportation. An uncle of Placido’s, in order to fix the lesson in his memory, had given him a severe ear-pulling, so that always whenever he heard signatures spoken of, his ears reproduced the sensation.
“Excuse me, but I can’t sign anything without first understanding what it’s about.”
“What a fool you are! If two celestial carbineers have signed it, what have you to fear?”
The name of celestial carbineers inspired confidence, being, as it was, a sacred company created to aid God in the warfare against the evil spirit and to prevent the smuggling of heretical contraband into the markets of the New Zion.
Placido was about to sign to make an end of it, because he was in a hurry,—already his classmates were reciting the O Thoma,—but again his ears twitched, so he said, “After the class! I want to read it first.”
“It’s very long, don’t you see? It concerns the presentation of a counter-petition, or rather, a protest. Don’t you understand? Makaraig and some others have asked that an academy of Castilian be opened, which is a piece of genuine foolishness—”
“All right, all right, after awhile. They’re already beginning,” answered Placido, trying to get away.
“But your professor may not call the roll—”
“Yes, yes; but he calls it sometimes. Later on, later on! Besides, I don’t want to put myself in opposition to Makaraig.”
“But it’s not putting yourself in opposition, it’s only—”
Placido heard no more, for he was already far away, hurrying to his class. He heard the different voices—adsum, adsum—the roll was being called! Hastening his steps he got to the door just as the letter Q was reached.
“Tinamáan ñg—!” he muttered, biting his lips.
He hesitated about entering, for the mark was already down against him and was not to be erased. One did not go to the class to learn but in order not to get this absence mark, for the class was reduced to reciting the lesson from memory, reading the book, and at the most answering a few abstract, profound, captious, enigmatic questions. True, the usual preachment was never lacking—the same as ever, about humility, submission, and respect to the clerics, and he, Placido, was humble, submissive, and respectful. So he was about to turn away when he remembered that the examinations were approaching and his professor had not yet asked him a question nor appeared to notice him—this would be a good opportunity to attract his attention and become known! To be known was to gain a year, for if it cost nothing to suspend one who was not known, it required a hard heart not to be touched by the sight of a youth who by his daily presence was a reproach over a year of his life wasted.
So Placido went in, not on tiptoe as was his custom, but noisily on his heels, and only too well did he succeed in his intent! The professor stared at him, knitted his brows, and shook his head, as though to say, “Ah, little impudence, you’ll pay for that!”