It was a beautiful night and the plaza presented a most animated aspect. Taking advantage of the freshness of the breeze and the splendor of the January moon, the people filled the fair to see, be seen, and amuse themselves. The music of the cosmoramas and the lights of the lanterns gave life and merriment to every one. Long rows of booths, brilliant with tinsel and gauds, exposed to view clusters of balls, masks strung by the eyes, tin toys, trains, carts, mechanical horses, carriages, steam-engines with diminutive boilers, Lilliputian tableware of porcelain, pine Nativities, dolls both foreign and domestic, the former red and smiling, the latter sad and pensive like little ladies beside gigantic children. The beating of drums, the roar of tin horns, the wheezy music of the accordions and the hand-organs, all mingled in a carnival concert, amid the coming and going of the crowd, pushing, stumbling over one another, with their faces turned toward the booths, so that the collisions were frequent and often amusing. The carriages were forced to move slowly, with the tabí of the cocheros repeated every moment. Met and mingled government clerks, soldiers, friars, students, Chinese, girls with their mammas or aunts, all greeting, signaling, calling to one another merrily.
Padre Camorra was in the seventh heaven at the sight of so many pretty girls. He stopped, looked back, nudged Ben-Zayb, chuckled and swore, saying, “And that one, and that one, my ink-slinger? And that one over there, what say you?” In his contentment he even fell to using the familiar tu toward his friend and adversary. Padre Salvi stared at him from time to time, but he took little note of Padre Salvi. On the contrary, he pretended to stumble so that he might brush against the girls, he winked and made eyes at them.
“Puñales!” he kept saying to himself. “When shall I be the curate of Quiapo?”
Suddenly Ben-Zayb let go an oath, jumped aside, and slapped his hand on his arm; Padre Camorra in his excess of enthusiasm had pinched him. They were approaching a dazzling señorita who was attracting the attention of the whole plaza, and Padre Camorra, unable to restrain his delight, had taken Ben-Zayb’s arm as a substitute for the girl’s.
It was Paulita Gomez, the prettiest of the pretty, in company with Isagani, followed by Doña Victorina. The young woman was resplendent in her beauty: all stopped and craned their necks, while they ceased their conversation and followed her with their eyes—even Doña Victorina was respectfully saluted.
Paulita was arrayed in a rich camisa and pañuelo of embroidered piña, different from those she had worn that morning to the church. The gauzy texture of the piña set off her shapely head, and the Indians who saw her compared her to the moon surrounded by fleecy clouds. A silk rose-colored skirt, caught up in rich and graceful folds by her little hand, gave majesty to her erect figure, the movement of which, harmonizing with her curving neck, displayed all the triumphs of vanity and satisfied coquetry. Isagani appeared to be rather disgusted, for so many curious eyes fixed upon the beauty of his sweetheart annoyed him. The stares seemed to him robbery and the girl’s smiles faithlessness.
Juanito saw her and his hump increased when he spoke to her. Paulita replied negligently, while Doña Victorina called to him, for Juanito was her favorite, she preferring him to Isagani.
“What a girl, what a girl!” muttered the entranced Padre Camorra.
“Come, Padre, pinch yourself and let me alone,” said Ben-Zayb fretfully.
“What a girl, what a girl!” repeated the friar. “And she has for a sweetheart a pupil of mine, the boy I had the quarrel with.”
“Just my luck that she’s not of my town,” he added, after turning his head several times to follow her with his looks. He was even tempted to leave his companions to follow the girl, and Ben-Zayb had difficulty in dissuading him. Paulita’s beautiful figure moved on, her graceful little head nodding with inborn coquetry.
Our promenaders kept on their way, not without sighs on the part of the friar-artilleryman, until they reached a booth surrounded by sightseers, who quickly made way for them. It was a shop of little wooden figures, of local manufacture, representing in all shapes and sizes the costumes, races, and occupations of the country: Indians, Spaniards, Chinese, mestizos, friars, clergymen, government clerks, gobernadorcillos, students, soldiers, and so on.
Whether the artists had more affection for the priests, the folds of whose habits were better suited to their esthetic purposes, or whether the friars, holding such an important place in Philippine life, engaged the attention of the sculptor more, the fact was that, for one cause or another, images of them abounded, well-turned and finished, representing them in the sublimest moments of their lives—the opposite of what is done in Europe, where they are pictured as sleeping on casks of wine, playing cards, emptying tankards, rousing themselves to gaiety, or patting the cheeks of a buxom girl. No, the friars of the Philippines were different: elegant, handsome, well-dressed, their tonsures neatly shaven, their features symmetrical and serene, their gaze meditative, their expression saintly, somewhat rosy-cheeked, cane in hand and patent-leather shoes on their feet, inviting adoration and a place in a glass case. Instead of the symbols of gluttony and incontinence of their brethren in Europe, those of Manila carried the book, the crucifix, and the palm of martyrdom; instead of kissing the simple country lasses, those of Manila gravely extended the hand to be kissed by children and grown men doubled over almost to kneeling; instead of the full refectory and dining-hall, their stage in Europe, in Manila they had the oratory, the study-table; instead of the mendicant friar who goes from door to door with his donkey and sack, begging alms, the friars of the Philippines scattered gold from full hands among the miserable Indians.
“Look, here’s Padre Camorra!” exclaimed Ben-Zayb, upon whom the effect of the champagne still lingered. He pointed to a picture of a lean friar of thoughtful mien who was seated at a table with his head resting on the palm of his hand, apparently writing a sermon by the light of a lamp. The contrast suggested drew laughter from the crowd.
Padre Camorra, who had already forgotten about Paulita, saw what was meant and laughing his clownish laugh, asked in turn, “Whom does this other figure resemble, Ben-Zayb?”
It was an old woman with one eye, with disheveled hair, seated on the ground like an Indian idol, ironing clothes. The sad-iron was carefully imitated, being of copper with coals of red tinsel and smoke-wreaths of dirty twisted cotton.
“Eh, Ben-Zayb, it wasn’t a fool who designed that” asked Padre Camorra with a laugh.
“Well, I don’t see the point,” replied the journalist.
“But, puñales, don’t you see the title, The Philippine Press? That utensil with which the old woman is ironing is here called the press!”
All laughed at this, Ben-Zayb himself joining in good-naturedly.
Two soldiers of the Civil Guard, appropriately labeled, were placed behind a man who was tightly bound and had his face covered by his hat. It was entitled The Country of Abaka, and from appearances they were going to shoot him.
Many of our visitors were displeased with the exhibition. They talked of rules of art, they sought proportion—one said that this figure did not have seven heads, that the face lacked a nose, having only three, all of which made Padre Camorra somewhat thoughtful, for he did not comprehend how a figure, to be correct, need have four noses and seven heads. Others said, if they were muscular, that they could not be Indians; still others remarked that it was not sculpture, but mere carpentry. Each added his spoonful of criticism, until Padre Camorra, not to be outdone, ventured to ask for at least thirty legs for each doll, because, if the others wanted noses, couldn’t he require feet? So they fell to discussing whether the Indian had or had not any aptitude for sculpture, and whether it would be advisable to encourage that art, until there arose a general dispute, which was cut short by Don Custodio’s declaration that the Indians had the aptitude, but that they should devote themselves exclusively to the manufacture of saints.
“One would say,” observed Ben-Zayb, who was full of bright ideas that night, “that this Chinaman is Quiroga, but on close examination it looks like Padre Irene. And what do you say about that British Indian? He looks like Simoun!”
Fresh peals of laughter resounded, while Padre Irene rubbed his nose.
“It’s the very image of him!”
“But where is Simoun? Simoun should buy it.”
But the jeweler had disappeared, unnoticed by any one.
“Puñales!” exclaimed Padre Camorra, “how stingy the American is! He’s afraid we would make him pay the admission for all of us into Mr. Leeds’ show.”
“No!” rejoined Ben-Zayb, “what he’s afraid of is that he’ll compromise himself. He may have foreseen the joke in store for his friend Mr. Leeds and has got out of the way.”
Thus, without purchasing the least trifle, they continued on their way to see the famous sphinx. Ben-Zayb offered to manage the affair, for the American would not rebuff a journalist who could take revenge in an unfavorable article. “You’ll see that it’s all a question of mirrors,” he said, “because, you see—” Again he plunged into a long demonstration, and as he had no mirrors at hand to discredit his theory he tangled himself up in all kinds of blunders and wound up by not knowing himself what he was saying. “In short, you’ll see how it’s all a question of optics.”