Isagani presented himself in the house of the lawyer, one of the most talented minds in Manila, whom the friars consulted in their great difficulties. The youth had to wait some time on account of the numerous clients, but at last his turn came and he entered the office, or bufete, as it is generally called in the Philippines. The lawyer received him with a slight cough, looking down furtively at his feet, but he did not rise or offer a seat, as he went on writing. This gave Isagani an opportunity for observation and careful study of the lawyer, who had aged greatly. His hair was gray and his baldness extended over nearly the whole crown of his head. His countenance was sour and austere.
There was complete silence in the study, except for the whispers of the clerks and understudies who were at work in an adjoining room. Their pens scratched as though quarreling with the paper.
At length the lawyer finished what he was writing, laid down his pen, raised his head, and, recognizing the youth, let his face light up with a smile as he extended his hand affectionately.
“Welcome, young man! But sit down, and excuse me, for I didn’t know that it was you. How is your uncle?”
Isagani took courage, believing that his case would get on well. He related briefly what had been done, the while studying the effect of his words. Señor Pasta listened impassively at first and, although he was informed of the efforts of the students, pretended ignorance, as if to show that he had nothing to do with such childish matters, but when he began to suspect what was wanted of him and heard mention of the Vice-Rector, friars, the Captain-General, a project, and so on, his face slowly darkened and he finally exclaimed, “This is the land of projects! But go on, go on!”
Isagani was not yet discouraged. He spoke of the manner in which a decision was to be reached and concluded with an expression of the confidence which the young men entertained that he, Señor Pasta, would intercede in their behalf in case Don Custodio should consult him, as was to be expected. He did not dare to say would advise, deterred by the wry face the lawyer put on.
But Señor Pasta had already formed his resolution, and it was not to mix at all in the affair, either as consulter or consulted. He was familiar with what had occurred at Los Baños, he knew that there existed two factions, and that Padre Irene was not the only champion on the side of the students, nor had he been the one who proposed submitting the petition to the Commission of Primary Instruction, but quite the contrary. Padre Irene, Padre Fernandez, the Countess, a merchant who expected to sell the materials for the new academy, and the high official who had been citing royal decree after royal decree, were about to triumph, when Padre Sibyla, wishing to gain time, had thought of the Commission. All these facts the great lawyer had present in his mind, so that when Isagani had finished speaking, he determined to confuse him with evasions, tangle the matter up, and lead the conversation to other subjects.
“Yes,” he said, pursing his lips and scratching his head, “there is no one who surpasses me in love for the country and in aspirations toward progress, but—I can’t compromise myself, I don’t know whether you clearly understand my position, a position that is very delicate, I have so many interests, I have to labor within the limits of strict prudence, it’s a risk—”
The lawyer sought to bewilder the youth with an exuberance of words, so he went on speaking of laws and decrees, and talked so much that instead of confusing the youth, he came very near to entangling himself in a labyrinth of citations.
“In no way do we wish to compromise you,” replied Isagani with great calmness. “God deliver us from injuring in the least the persons whose lives are so useful to the rest of the Filipinos! But, as little versed as I may be in the laws, royal decrees, writs, and resolutions that obtain in this country, I can’t believe that there can be any harm in furthering the high purposes of the government, in trying to secure a proper interpretation of these purposes. We are seeking the same end and differ only about the means.”
The lawyer smiled, for the youth had allowed himself to wander away from the subject, and there where the former was going to entangle him he had already entangled himself.
“That’s exactly the quid, as is vulgarly said. It’s clear that it is laudable to aid the government, when one aids it submissively, following out its desires and the true spirit of the laws in agreement with the just beliefs of the governing powers, and when not in contradiction to the fundamental and general way of thinking of the persons to whom is intrusted the common welfare of the individuals that form a social organism. Therefore, it is criminal, it is punishable, because it is offensive to the high principle of authority, to attempt any action contrary to its initiative, even supposing it to be better than the governmental proposition, because such action would injure its prestige, which is the elementary basis upon which all colonial edifices rest.”
Confident that this broadside had at least stunned Isagani, the old lawyer fell back in his armchair, outwardly very serious, but laughing to himself.
Isagani, however, ventured to reply. “I should think that governments, the more they are threatened, would be all the more careful to seek bases that are impregnable. The basis of prestige for colonial governments is the weakest of all, since it does not depend upon themselves but upon the consent of the governed, while the latter are willing to recognize it. The basis of justice or reason would seem to be the most durable.”
The lawyer raised his head. How was this—did that youth dare to reply and argue with him, him, Señor Pasta? Was he not yet bewildered with his big words?
“Young man, you must put those considerations aside, for they are dangerous,” he declared with a wave of his hand. “What I advise is that you let the government attend to its own business.”
“Governments are established for the welfare of the peoples, and in order to accomplish this purpose properly they have to follow the suggestions of the citizens, who are the ones best qualified to understand their own needs.”
“Those who constitute the government are also citizens, and among the most enlightened.”
“But, being men, they are fallible, and ought not to disregard the opinions of others.”
“They must be trusted, they have to attend to everything.”
“There is a Spanish proverb which says, ‘No tears, no milk,’ in other words, ‘To him who does not ask, nothing is given.’ ”
“Quite the reverse,” replied the lawyer with a sarcastic smile; “with the government exactly the reverse occurs—”
But he suddenly checked himself, as if he had said too much and wished to correct his imprudence. “The government has given us things that we have not asked for, and that we could not ask for, because to ask—to ask, presupposes that it is in some way incompetent and consequently is not performing its functions. To suggest to it a course of action, to try to guide it, when not really antagonizing it, is to presuppose that it is capable of erring, and as I have already said to you such suppositions are menaces to the existence of colonial governments. The common crowd overlooks this and the young men who set to work thoughtlessly do not know, do not comprehend, do not try to comprehend the counter-effect of asking, the menace to order there is in that idea—”
“Pardon me,” interrupted Isagani, offended by the arguments the jurist was using with him, “but when by legal methods people ask a government for something, it is because they think it good and disposed to grant a blessing, and such action, instead of irritating it, should flatter it —to the mother one appeals, never to the stepmother. The government, in my humble opinion, is not an omniscient being that can see and anticipate everything, and even if it could, it ought not to feel offended, for here you have the church itself doing nothing but asking and begging of God, who sees and knows everything, and you yourself ask and demand many things in the courts of this same government, yet neither God nor the courts have yet taken offense. Every one realizes that the government, being the human institution that it is, needs the support of all the people, it needs to be made to see and feel the reality of things. You yourself are not convinced of the truth of your objection, you yourself know that it is a tyrannical and despotic government which, in order to make a display of force and independence, denies everything through fear or distrust, and that the tyrannized and enslaved peoples are the only ones whose duty it is never to ask for anything. A people that hates its government ought to ask for nothing but that it abdicate its power.”
The old lawyer grimaced and shook his head from side to side, in sign of discontent, while he rubbed his hand over his bald pate and said in a tone of condescending pity: “Ahem! those are bad doctrines, bad theories, ahem! How plain it is that you are young and inexperienced in life. Look what is happening with the inexperienced young men who in Madrid are asking for so many reforms. They are accused of filibusterism, many of them don’t dare return here, and yet, what are they asking for? Things holy, ancient, and recognized as quite harmless. But there are matters that can’t be explained, they’re so delicate. Let’s see—I confess to you that there are other reasons besides those expressed that might lead a sensible government to deny systematically the wishes of the people—no—but it may happen that we find ourselves under rulers so fatuous and ridiculous—but there are always other reasons, even though what is asked be quite just—different governments encounter different conditions—”
The old man hesitated, stared fixedly at Isagani, and then with a sudden resolution made a sign with his hand as though he would dispel some idea.
“I can guess what you mean,” said Isagani, smiling sadly. “You mean that a colonial government, for the very reason that it is imperfectly constituted and that it is based on premises—”
“No, no, not that, no!” quickly interrupted the old lawyer, as he sought for something among his papers. “No, I meant—but where are my spectacles?”
“There they are,” replied Isagani.
The old man put them on and pretended to look over some papers, but seeing that the youth was waiting, he mumbled, “I wanted to tell you something, I wanted to say—but it has slipped from my mind. You interrupted me in your eagerness—but it was an insignificant matter. If you only knew what a whirl my head is in, I have so much to do!”
Isagani understood that he was being dismissed. “So,” he said, rising, “we—”
“Ah, you will do well to leave the matter in the hands of the government, which will settle it as it sees fit. You say that the Vice-Rector is opposed to the teaching of Castilian. Perhaps he may be, not as to the fact but as to the form. It is said that the Rector who is on his way will bring a project for reform in education. Wait a while, give time a chance, apply yourself to your studies as the examinations are near, and—carambas!—you who already speak Castilian and express yourself easily, what are you bothering yourself about? What interest have you in seeing it specially taught? Surely Padre Florentino thinks as I do! Give him my regards.”
“My uncle,” replied Isagani, “has always admonished me to think of others as much as of myself. I didn’t come for myself, I came in the name of those who are in worse condition.”
“What the devil! Let them do as you have done, let them singe their eyebrows studying and come to be bald like myself, stuffing whole paragraphs into their memories! I believe that if you talk Spanish it is because you have studied it—you’re not of Manila or of Spanish parents! Then let them learn it as you have, and do as I have done: I’ve been a servant to all the friars, I’ve prepared their chocolate, and while with my right hand I stirred it, with the left I held a grammar, I learned, and, thank God! have never needed other teachers or academies or permits from the government. Believe me, he who wishes to learn, learns and becomes wise!”
“But how many among those who wish to learn come to be what you are? One in ten thousand, and more!”
“Pish! Why any more?” retorted the old man, shrugging his shoulders. “There are too many lawyers now, many of them become mere clerks. Doctors? They insult and abuse one another, and even kill each other in competition for a patient. Laborers, sir, laborers, are what we need, for agriculture!”
Isagani realized that he was losing time, but still could not forbear replying: “Undoubtedly, there are many doctors and lawyers, but I won’t say there are too many, since we have towns that lack them entirely, and if they do abound in quantity, perhaps they are deficient in quality. Since the young men can’t be prevented from studying, and no other professions are open to us, why let them waste their time and effort? And if the instruction, deficient as it is, does not keep many from becoming lawyers and doctors, if we must finally have them, why not have good ones? After all, even if the sole wish is to make the country a country of farmers and laborers, and condemn in it all intellectual activity, I don’t see any evil in enlightening those same farmers and laborers, in giving them at least an education that will aid them in perfecting themselves and in perfecting their work, in placing them in a condition to understand many things of which they are at present ignorant.”
“Bah, bah, bah!” exclaimed the lawyer, drawing circles in the air with his hand to dispel the ideas suggested. “To be a good farmer no great amount of rhetoric is needed. Dreams, illusions, fancies! Eh, will you take a piece of advice?”
He arose and placed his hand affectionately on the youth’s shoulder, as he continued: “I’m going to give you one, and a very good one, because I see that you are intelligent and the advice will not be wasted. You’re going to study medicine? Well, confine yourself to learning how to put on plasters and apply leeches, and don’t ever try to improve or impair the condition of your kind. When you become a licentiate, marry a rich and devout girl, try to make cures and charge well, shun everything that has any relation to the general state of the country, attend mass, confession, and communion when the rest do, and you will see afterwards how you will thank me, and I shall see it, if I am still alive. Always remember that charity begins at home, for man ought not to seek on earth more than the greatest amount of happiness for himself, as Bentham says. If you involve yourself in quixotisms you will have no career, nor will you get married, nor will you ever amount to anything. All will abandon you, your own countrymen will be the first to laugh at your simplicity. Believe me, you will remember me and see that I am right, when you have gray hairs like myself, gray hairs such as these!”
Here the old lawyer stroked his scanty white hair, as he smiled sadly and shook his head.
“When I have gray hairs like those, sir,” replied Isagani with equal sadness, “and turn my gaze back over my past and see that I have worked only for myself, without having done what I plainly could and should have done for the country that has given me everything, for the citizens that have helped me to live—then, sir, every gray hair will be a thorn, and instead of rejoicing, they will shame me!”
So saying, he took his leave with a profound bow. The lawyer remained motionless in his place, with an amazed look on his face. He listened to the footfalls that gradually died away, then resumed his seat.
“Poor boy!” he murmured, “similar thoughts also crossed my mind once! What more could any one desire than to be able to say: ‘I have done this for the good of the fatherland, I have consecrated my life to the welfare of others!’ A crown of laurel, steeped in aloes, dry leaves that cover thorns and worms! That is not life, that does not get us our daily bread, nor does it bring us honors— the laurel would hardly serve for a salad, nor produce ease, nor aid us in winning lawsuits, but quite the reverse! Every country has its code of ethics, as it has its climate and its diseases, different from the climate and the diseases of other countries.”
After a pause, he added: “Poor boy! If all should think and act as he does, I don’t say but that—Poor boy! Poor Florentino!”