Search This Blog

Loading...

Chapter 19: The Fuse


Placido Penitente left the class with his heart overflowing with bitterness and sullen gloom in his looks. He was worthy of his name when not driven from his usual course, but once irritated he was a veritable torrent, a wild beast that could only be stopped by the death of himself or his foe. So many affronts, so many pinpricks, day after day, had made his heart quiver, lodging in it to sleep the sleep of lethargic vipers, and they now were awaking to shake and hiss with fury. The hisses resounded in his ears with the jesting epithets of the professor, the phrases in the slang of the markets, and he seemed to hear blows and laughter. A thousand schemes for revenge rushed into his brain, crowding one another, only to fade immediately like phantoms in a dream. His vanity cried out to him with desperate tenacity that he must do something.
“Placido Penitente,” said the voice, “show these youths that you have dignity, that you are the son of a valiant and noble province, where wrongs are washed out with blood. You’re a Batangan, Placido Penitente! Avenge yourself, Placido Penitente!”
The youth groaned and gnashed his teeth, stumbling against every one in the street and on the Bridge of Spain, as if he were seeking a quarrel. In the latter place he saw a carriage in which was the Vice-Rector, Padre Sibyla, accompanied by Don Custodio, and he had a great mind to seize the friar and throw him into the river.
He proceeded along the Escolta and was tempted to assault two Augustinians who were seated in the doorway of Quiroga’s bazaar, laughing and joking with other friars who must have been inside in joyous conversation, for their merry voices and sonorous laughter could be heard. Somewhat farther on, two cadets blocked up the sidewalk, talking with the clerk of a warehouse, who was in his shirtsleeves. Penitents moved toward them to force a passage and they, perceiving his dark intention, good-humoredly made way for him. Placido was by this time under the influence of the amok, as the Malayists say.
As he approached his home—the house of a silversmith where he lived as a boarder—he tried to collect his thoughts and make a plan—to return to his town and avenge himself by showing the friars that they could not with impunity insult a youth or make a joke of him. He decided to write a letter immediately to his mother, Cabesang Andang, to inform her of what had happened and to tell her that the schoolroom had closed forever for him. Although there was the Ateneo of the Jesuits, where he might study that year, yet it was not very likely that the Dominicans would grant him the transfer, and, even though he should secure it, in the following year he would have to return to the University.
“They say that we don’t know how to avenge ourselves!” he muttered. “Let the lightning strike and we’ll see!”
But Placido was not reckoning upon what awaited him in the house of the silversmith. Cabesang Andang had just arrived from Batangas, having come to do some shopping, to visit her son, and to bring him money, jerked venison, and silk handkerchiefs.
The first greetings over, the poor woman, who had at once noticed her son’s gloomy look, could no longer restrain her curiosity and began to ask questions. His first explanations Cabesang Andang regarded as some subterfuge, so she smiled and soothed her son, reminding him of their sacrifices and privations. She spoke of Capitana Simona’s son, who, having entered the seminary, now carried himself in the town like a bishop, and Capitana Simona already considered herself a Mother of God, clearly so, for her son was going to be another Christ.
“If the son becomes a priest,” said she, “the mother won’t have to pay us what she owes us. Who will collect from her then?”
But on seeing that Placido was speaking seriously and reading in his eyes the storm that raged within him, she realized that what he was telling her was unfortunately the strict truth. She remained silent for a while and then broke out into lamentations.
“Ay!” she exclaimed. “I promised your father that I would care for you, educate you, and make a lawyer of you! I’ve deprived myself of everything so that you might go to school! Instead of joining the panguingui where the stake is a half peso, I Ve gone only where it’s a half real, enduring the bad smells and the dirty cards. Look at my patched camisa; for instead of buying new ones I’ve spent the money in masses and presents to St. Sebastian, even though I don’t have great confidence in his power, because the curate recites the masses fast and hurriedly, he’s an entirely new saint and doesn’t yet know how to perform miracles, and isn’t made of batikulin but of lanete. Ay, what will your father say to me when I die and see him again!”
So the poor woman lamented and wept, while Placido became gloomier and let stifled sighs escape from his breast.
“What would I get out of being a lawyer?” was his response.
“What will become of you?” asked his mother, clasping her hands. “They’ll call you a filibuster and garrote you. I’ve told you that you must have patience, that you must be humble. I don’t tell you that you must kiss the hands of the curates, for I know that you have a delicate sense of smell, like your father, who couldn’t endure European cheese. But we have to suffer, to be silent, to say yes to everything. What are we going to do? The friars own everything, and if they are unwilling, no one will become a lawyer or a doctor. Have patience, my son, have patience!”
“But I’ve had a great deal, mother, I’ve suffered for months and months.”
Cabesang Andang then resumed her lamentations. She did not ask that he declare himself a partizan of the friars, she was not one herself—it was enough to know that for one good friar there were ten bad, who took the money from the poor and deported the rich. But one must be silent, suffer, and endure—there was no other course. She cited this man and that one, who by being patient and humble, even though in the bottom of his heart he hated his masters, had risen from servant of the friars to high office; and such another who was rich and could commit abuses, secure of having patrons who would protect him from the law, yet who had been nothing more than a poor sacristan, humble and obedient, and who had married a pretty girl whose son had the curate for a godfather. So Cabesang Andang continued her litany of humble and patient Filipinos, as she called them, and was about to cite others who by not being so had found themselves persecuted and exiled, when Placido on some trifling pretext left the house to wander about the streets.
He passed through Sibakong, Tondo, San Nicolas, and Santo Cristo, absorbed in his ill-humor, without taking note of the sun or the hour, and only when he began to feel hungry and discovered that he had no money, having given it all for celebrations and contributions, did he return to the house. He had expected that he would not meet his mother there, as she was in the habit, when in Manila, of going out at that hour to a neighboring house where panguingui was played, but Cabesang Andang was waiting to propose her plan. She would avail herself of the procurator of the Augustinians to restore her son to the good graces of the Dominicans.
Placido stopped her with a gesture. “I’ll throw myself into the sea first,” he declared. “I’ll become a tulisan before I’ll go back to the University.”
Again his mother began her preachment about patience and humility, so he went away again without having eaten anything, directing his steps toward the quay where the steamers tied up. The sight of a steamer weighing anchor for Hongkong inspired him with an idea—to go to Hongkong, to run away, get rich there, and make war on the friars.
The thought of Hongkong awoke in his mind the recollection of a story about frontals, cirials, and candelabra of pure silver, which the piety of the faithful had led them to present to a certain church. The friars, so the silversmith told, had sent to Hongkong to have duplicate frontals, cirials, and candelabra made of German silver, which they substituted for the genuine ones, these being melted down and coined into Mexican pesos. Such was the story he had heard, and though it was no more than a rumor or a story, his resentment gave it the color of truth and reminded him of other tricks of theirs in that same style. The desire to live free, and certain half-formed plans, led him to decide upon Hongkong. If the corporations sent all their money there, commerce must be flourishing and he could enrich himself.
“I want to be free, to live free!”
Night surprised him wandering along San Fernando, but not meeting any sailor he knew, he decided to return home. As the night was beautiful, with a brilliant moon transforming the squalid city into a fantastic fairy kingdom, he went to the fair. There he wandered back and forth, passing booths without taking any notice of the articles in them, ever with the thought of Hongkong, of living free, of enriching himself.
He was about to leave the fair when he thought he recognized the jeweler Simoun bidding good-by to a foreigner, both of them speaking in English. To Placido every language spoken in the Philippines by Europeans, when not Spanish, had to be English, and besides, he caught the name Hongkong. If only the jeweler would recommend him to that foreigner, who must be setting out for Hongkong!
Placido paused. He was acquainted with the jeweler, as the latter had been in his town peddling his wares, and he had accompanied him on one of his trips, when Simoun had made himself very amiable indeed, telling him of the life in the universities of the free countries—what a difference!
So he followed the jeweler. “Señor Simoun, Señor Simoun!” he called.
The jeweler was at that moment entering his carriage. Recognizing Placido, he checked himself.
“I want to ask a favor of you, to say a few words to you.”
Simoun made a sign of impatience which Placido in his perturbation did not observe. In a few words the youth related what had happened and made known his desire to go to Hongkong.
“Why?” asked Simoun, staring fixedly at Placido through his blue goggles.
Placido did not answer, so Simoun threw back his head, smiled his cold, silent smile and said, “All right! Come with me. To Calle Iris!” he directed the cochero.
Simoun remained silent throughout the whole drive, apparently absorbed in meditation of a very important nature. Placido kept quiet, waiting for him to speak first, and entertained himself in watching the promenaders who were enjoying the clear moonlight: pairs of infatuated lovers, followed by watchful mammas or aunts; groups of students in white clothes that the moonlight made whiter still; half-drunken soldiers in a carriage, six together, on their way to visit some nipa temple dedicated to Cytherea; children playing their games and Chinese selling sugar-cane. All these filled the streets, taking on in the brilliant moonlight fantastic forms and ideal outlines. In one house an orchestra was playing waltzes, and couples might be seen dancing under the bright lamps and chandeliers—what a sordid spectacle they presented in comparison with the sight the streets afforded! Thinking of Hongkong, he asked himself if the moonlit nights in that island were so poetical and sweetly melancholy as those of the Philippines, and a deep sadness settled down over his heart.
Simoun ordered the carriage to stop and both alighted, just at the moment when Isagani and Paulita Gomez passed them murmuring sweet inanities. Behind them came Doña Victorina with Juanito Pelaez, who was talking in a loud voice, busily gesticulating, and appearing to have a larger hump than ever. In his preoccupation Pelaez did not notice his former schoolmate.
“There’s a fellow who’s happy!” muttered Placido with a sigh, as he gazed toward the group, which became converted into vaporous silhouettes, with Juanito’s arms plainly visible, rising and falling like the arms of a windmill.
“That’s all he’s good for,” observed Simoun. “It’s fine to be young!”
To whom did Placido and Simoun each allude?
The jeweler made a sign to the young man, and they left the street to pick their way through a labyrinth of paths and passageways among various houses, at times leaping upon stones to avoid the mudholes or stepping aside from the sidewalks that were badly constructed and still more badly tended. Placido was surprised to see the rich jeweler move through such places as if he were familiar with them. They at length reached an open lot where a wretched hut stood off by itself surrounded by banana-plants and areca-palms. Some bamboo frames and sections of the same material led Placido to suspect that they were approaching the house of a pyrotechnist.
Simoun rapped on the window and a man’s face appeared.
“Ah, sir!” he exclaimed, and immediately came outside.
“Is the powder here?” asked Simoun.
“In sacks. I’m waiting for the shells.”
“And the bombs?”
“Are all ready.”
“All right, then. This very night you must go and inform the lieutenant and the corporal. Then keep on your way, and in Lamayan you will find a man in a banka. You will say Cabesa and he will answer Tales. It’s necessary that he be here tomorrow. There’s no time to be lost.”
Saying this, he gave him some gold coins.
“How’s this, sir?” the man inquired in very good Spanish. “Is there any news?”
“Yes, it’ll be done within the coming week.”
“The coming week!” exclaimed the unknown, stepping backward. “The suburbs are not yet ready, they hope that the General will withdraw the decree. I thought it was postponed until the beginning of Lent.”
Simoun shook his head. “We won’t need the suburbs,” he said. “With Cabesang Tales’ people, the ex-carbineers, and a regiment, we’ll have enough. Later, Maria Clara may be dead. Start at once!”
The man disappeared. Placido, who had stood by and heard all of this brief interview, felt his hair rise and stared with startled eyes at Simoun, who smiled.
“You’re surprised,” he said with his icy smile, “that this Indian, so poorly dressed, speaks Spanish well? He was a schoolmaster who persisted in teaching Spanish to the children and did not stop until he had lost his position and had been deported as a disturber of the public peace, and for having been a friend of the unfortunate Ibarra. I got him back from his deportation, where he had been working as a pruner of coconut-palms, and have made him a pyrotechnist.”
They returned to the street and set out for Trozo. Before [183] a wooden house of pleasant and well-kept appearance was a Spaniard on crutches, enjoying the moonlight. When Simoun accosted him, his attempt to rise was accompanied by a stifled groan.
“You’re ready?” Simoun inquired of him.
“I always am!”
“The coming week?”
“So soon?”
“At the first cannon-shot!”
He moved away, followed by Placido, who was beginning to ask himself if he were not dreaming.
“Does it surprise you,” Simoun asked him, “to see a Spaniard so young and so afflicted with disease? Two years ago he was as robust as you are, but his enemies succeeded in sending him to Balabak to work in a penal settlement, and there he caught the rheumatism and fever that are dragging him into the grave. The poor devil had married a very beautiful woman.”
As an empty carriage was passing, Simoun hailed it and with Placido directed it to his house in the Escolta, just at the moment when the clocks were striking half-past ten.
Two hours later Placido left the jeweler’s house and walked gravely and thoughtfully along the Escolta, then almost deserted, in spite of the fact that the cafés were still quite animated. Now and then a carriage passed rapidly, clattering noisily over the worn pavement.
From a room in his house that overlooked the Pasig, Simoun turned his gaze toward the Walled City, which could be seen through the open windows, with its roofs of galvanized iron gleaming in the moonlight and its somber towers showing dull and gloomy in the midst of the serene night. He laid aside his blue goggles, and his white hair, like a frame of silver, surrounded his energetic bronzed features, dimly lighted by a lamp whose flame was dying out from lack of oil. Apparently wrapped in thought, he took no notice of the fading light and impending darkness.
“Within a few days,” he murmured, “when on all sides that accursed city is burning, den of presumptuous nothingness and impious exploitation of the ignorant and the distressed, when the tumults break out in the suburbs and there rush into the terrorized streets my avenging hordes, engendered by rapacity and wrongs, then will I burst the walls of your prison, I will tear you from the clutches of fanaticism, and my white dove, you will be the Phoenix that will rise from the glowing embers! A revolution plotted by men in darkness tore me from your side—another revolution will sweep me into your arms and revive me! That moon, before reaching the apogee of its brilliance, will light the Philippines cleansed of loathsome filth!”
Simoun, stopped suddenly, as though interrupted. A voice in his inner consciousness was asking if he, Simoun, were not also a part of the filth of that accursed city, perhaps its most poisonous ferment. Like the dead who are to rise at the sound of the last trumpet, a thousand bloody specters—desperate shades of murdered men, women violated, fathers torn from their families, vices stimulated and encouraged, virtues mocked, now rose in answer to the mysterious question. For the first time in his criminal career, since in Havana he had by means of corruption and bribery set out to fashion an instrument for the execution of his plans—a man without faith, patriotism, or conscience—for the first time in that life, something within rose up and protested against his actions. He closed his eyes and remained for some time motionless, then rubbed his hand over his forehead, tried to be deaf to his conscience, and felt fear creeping over him. No, he must not analyze himself, he lacked the courage to turn his gaze toward his past. The idea of his courage, his conviction, his self-confidence failing him at the very moment when his work was set before him! As the ghosts of the wretches in whose misfortunes he had taken a hand continued to hover before his eyes, as if issuing from the shining surface of the river to invade the room with appeals and hands extended toward him, as reproaches and laments seemed to fill the air with threats and cries for vengeance, he turned his gaze from the window and for the first time began to tremble.
“No, I must be ill, I can’t be feeling well,” he muttered. “There are many who hate me, who ascribe their misfortunes to me, but—”
He felt his forehead begin to burn, so he arose to approach the window and inhale the fresh night breeze. Below him the Pasig dragged along its silvered stream, on whose bright surface the foam glittered, winding slowly about, receding and advancing, following the course of the little eddies. The city loomed up on the opposite bank, and its black walls looked fateful, mysterious, losing their sordidness in the moonlight that idealizes and embellishes everything. But again Simoun shivered; he seemed to see before him the severe countenance of his father, dying in prison, but dying for having done good; then the face of another man, severer still, who had given his life for him because he believed that he was going to bring about the regeneration of his country.
“No, I can’t turn back,” he exclaimed, wiping the perspiration from his forehead. “The work is at hand and its success will justify me! If I had conducted myself as you did, I should have succumbed. Nothing of idealism, nothing of fallacious theories! Fire and steel to the cancer, chastisement to vice, and afterwards destroy the instrument, if it be bad! No, I have planned well, but now I feel feverish, my reason wavers, it is natural—If I have done ill, it has been that I may do good, and the end justifies the means. What I will do is not to expose myself—”
With his thoughts thus confused he lay down, and tried to fall asleep.
On the following morning Placido listened submissively, with a smile on his lips, to his mother’s preachment. When she spoke of her plan of interesting the Augustinian procurator he did not protest or object, but on the contrary offered himself to carry it out, in order to save trouble for his mother, whom he begged to return at once to the province, that very day, if possible. Cabesang Andang asked him the reason for such haste.
“Because—because if the procurator learns that you are here he won’t do anything until you send him a present and order some masses.”

No comments:

Post a Comment

Your thoughts?

Contact Us

Name

Email *

Message *