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Chapter 20: The Arbiter


True it was that Padre Irene had said: the question of the academy of Castilian, so long before broached, was on the road to a solution. Don Custodio, the active Don Custodio, the most active of all the arbiters in the world, according to Ben-Zayb, was occupied with it, spending his days reading the petition and falling asleep without reaching any decision, waking on the following day to repeat the same performance, dropping off to sleep again, and so on continuously.
How the good man labored, the most active of all the arbiters in the world! He wished to get out of the predicament by pleasing everybody—the friars, the high official, the Countess, Padre Irene, and his own liberal principles. He had consulted with Señor Pasta, and Señor Pasta had left him stupefied and confused, after advising him to do a million contradictory and impossible things. He had consulted with Pepay the dancing girl, and Pepay, who had no idea what he was talking about, executed a pirouette and asked him for twenty-five pesos to bury an aunt of hers who had suddenly died for the fifth time, or the fifth aunt who had suddenly died, according to fuller explanations, at the same time requesting that he get a cousin of hers who could read, write, and play the violin, a job as assistant on the public works—all things that were far from inspiring Don Custodio with any saving idea.
Two days after the events in the Quiapo fair, Don Custodio was as usual busily studying the petition, without hitting upon the happy solution. While he yawns, coughs, smokes, and thinks about Pepay’s legs and her pirouettes, [188] let us give some account of this exalted personage, in order to understand Padre Sibyla’s reason for proposing him as the arbiter of such a vexatious matter and why the other clique accepted him.
Don Custodio de Salazar y Sanchez de Monteredondo, often referred to as Good Authority, belonged to that class of Manila society which cannot take a step without having the newspapers heap titles upon them, calling each indedefatigable, distinguished, zealous, active, profound, intelligent, well-informed, influential, and so on, as if they feared that he might be confused with some idle and ignorant possessor of the same name. Besides, no harm resulted from it, and the watchful censor was not disturbed. The Good Authority resulted from his friendship with Ben-Zayb, when the latter, in his two noisiest controversies, which he carried on for weeks and months in the columns of the newspapers about whether it was proper to wear a high hat, a derby, or a salakot, and whether the plural of carácter should be carácteres or caractéres, in order to strengthen his argument always came out with, “We have this on good authority,” “We learn this from good authority,” later letting it be known, for in Manila everything becomes known, that this Good Authority was no other than Don Custodio de Salazar y Sanchez de Monteredondo.
He had come to Manila very young, with a good position that had enabled him to marry a pretty mestiza belonging to one of the wealthiest families of the city. As he had natural talent, boldness, and great self-possession, and knew how to make use of the society in which he found himself, he launched into business with his wife’s money, filling contracts for the government, by reason of which he was made alderman, afterwards alcalde, member of the Economic Society, councilor of the administration, president of the directory of the Obras Pias, member of the Society of Mercy, director of the Spanish-Filipino Bank, etc., etc. Nor are these etceteras to be taken like those ordinarily placed after a long enumeration of titles: Don Custodio, although never having seen a treatise on hygiene, came to be vice-chairman of the Board of Health, for the truth was that of the eight who composed this board only one had to be a physician and he could not be that one. So also he was a member of the Vaccination Board, which was composed of three physicians and seven laymen, among these being the Archbishop and three Provincials. He was a brother in all the confraternities of the common and of the most exalted dignity, and, as we have seen, director of the Superior Commission of Primary Instruction, which usually did not do anything—all these being quite sufficient reason for the newspapers to heap adjectives upon him no less when he traveled than when he sneezed.
In spite of so many offices, Don Custodio was not among those who slept through the sessions, contenting themselves, like lazy and timid delegates, in voting with the majority. The opposite of the numerous kings of Europe who bear the title of King of Jerusalem, Don Custodio made his dignity felt and got from it all the benefit possible, often frowning, making his voice impressive, coughing out his words, often taking up the whole session telling a story, presenting a project, or disputing with a colleague who had placed himself in open opposition to him. Although not past forty, he already talked of acting with circumspection, of letting the figs ripen (adding under his breath “pumpkins”), of pondering deeply and of stepping with careful tread, of the necessity for understanding the country, because the nature of the Indians, because the prestige of the Spanish name, because they were first of all Spaniards, because religion—and so on. Remembered yet in Manila is a speech of his when for the first time it was proposed to light the city with kerosene in place of the old coconut oil: in such an innovation, far from seeing the extinction of the coconut-oil industry, he merely discerned the interests of a certain alderman—because Don Custodio saw a long way—and opposed it with all the resonance of his bucal cavity, considering the project too premature and predicting great social cataclysms. No less celebrated was his opposition to a sentimental serenade that some wished to tender a certain governor on the eve of his departure. Don Custodio, who felt a little resentment over some slight or other, succeeded in insinuating the idea that the rising star was the mortal enemy of the setting one, whereat the frightened promoters of the serenade gave it up.
One day he was advised to return to Spain to be cured of a liver complaint, and the newspapers spoke of him as an Antaeus who had to set foot in the mother country to gain new strength. But the Manila Antaeus found himself a small and insignificant person at the capital. There he was nobody, and he missed his beloved adjectives. He did not mingle with the upper set, and his lack of education prevented him from amounting to much in the academies and scientific centers, while his backwardness and his parish-house politics drove him from the clubs disgusted, vexed, seeing nothing clearly but that there they were forever borrowing money and gambling heavily. He missed the submissive servants of Manila, who endured all his peevishness, and who now seemed to be far preferable; when a winter kept him between a fireplace and an attack of pneumonia, he sighed for the Manila winter during which a single quilt is sufficient, while in summer he missed the easy-chair and the boy to fan him. In short, in Madrid he was only one among many, and in spite of his diamonds he was once taken for a rustic who did not know how to comport himself and at another time for an Indiano. His scruples were scoffed at, and he was shamelessly flouted by some borrowers whom he offended. Disgusted with the conservatives, who took no great notice of his advice, as well as with the [191] sponges who rifled his pockets, he declared himself to be of the liberal party and returned within a year to the Philippines, if not sound in his liver, yet completely changed in his beliefs.
The eleven months spent at the capital among café politicians, nearly all retired half-pay office-holders, the various speeches caught here and there, this or that article of the opposition, all the political life that permeates the air, from the barber-shop where amid the scissors-clips the Figaro announces his program to the banquets where in harmonious periods and telling phrases the different shades of political opinion, the divergences and disagreements, are adjusted—all these things awoke in him the farther he got from Europe, like the life-giving sap within the sown seed prevented from bursting out by the thick husk, in such a way that when he reached Manila he believed that he was going to regenerate it and actually had the holiest plans and the purest ideals.
During the first months after his return he was continually talking about the capital, about his good friends, about Minister So-and-So, ex-Minister Such-a-One, the delegate C., the author B., and there was not a political event, a court scandal, of which he was not informed to the last detail, nor was there a public man the secrets of whose private life were unknown to him, nor could anything occur that he had not foreseen, nor any reform be ordered but he had first been consulted. All this was seasoned with attacks on the conservatives in righteous indignation, with apologies of the liberal party, with a little anecdote here, a phrase there from some great man, dropped in as one who did not wish offices and employments, which same he had refused in order not to be beholden to the conservatives. Such was his enthusiasm in these first days that various cronies in the grocery-store which he visited from time to time affiliated themselves with the liberal party and began to style themselves liberals: Don Eulogio Badana, a retired sergeant of carbineers; the honest Armendia, by profession a pilot, and a rampant Carlist; Don Eusebio Picote, customs inspector; and Don Bonifacio Tacon, shoe- and harness-maker.
But nevertheless, from lack of encouragement and of opposition, his enthusiasm gradually waned. He did not read the newspapers that came from Spain, because they arrived in packages, the sight of which made him yawn. The ideas that he had caught having been all expended, he needed reinforcement, and his orators were not there, and although in the casinos of Manila there was enough gambling, and money was borrowed as in Madrid, no speech that would nourish his political ideas was permitted in them. But Don Custodio was not lazy, he did more than wish—he worked. Foreseeing that he was going to leave his bones in the Philippines, he began to consider that country his proper sphere and to devote his efforts to its welfare. Thinking to liberalize it, he commenced to draw up a series of reforms or projects, which were ingenious, to say the least. It was he who, having heard in Madrid mention of the wooden street pavements of Paris, not yet adopted in Spain, proposed the introduction of them in Manila by covering the streets with boards nailed down as they are on the sides of houses; it was he who, deploring the accidents to two-wheeled vehicles, planned to avoid them by putting on at least three wheels; it was also he who, while acting as vice-president of the Board of Health, ordered everything fumigated, even the telegrams that came from infected places; it was also he who, in compassion for the convicts that worked in the sun and with a desire of saving to the government the cost of their equipment, suggested that they be clothed in a simple breech-clout and set to work not by day but at night. He marveled, he stormed, that his projects should encounter objectors, but consoled himself with the reflection that the man who is worth enemies has them, and revenged himself by attacking and  tearing to pieces any project, good or bad, presented by others.
As he prided himself on being a liberal, upon being asked what he thought of the Indians he would answer, like one conferring a great favor, that they were fitted for manual labor and the imitative arts (meaning thereby music, painting, and sculpture), adding his old postscript that to know them one must have resided many, many years in the country. Yet when he heard of any one of them excelling in something that was not manual labor or an imitative art—in chemistry, medicine, or philosophy, for example—he would exclaim: “Ah, he promises fairly, fairly well, he’s not a fool!” and feel sure that a great deal of Spanish blood must flow in the veins of such an Indian. If unable to discover any in spite of his good intentions, he then sought a Japanese origin, for it was at that time the fashion began of attributing to the Japanese or the Arabs whatever good the Filipinos might have in them. For him the native songs were Arabic music, as was also the alphabet of the ancient Filipinos—he was certain of this, although he did not know Arabic nor had he ever seen that alphabet.
“Arabic, the purest Arabic,” he said to Ben-Zayb in a tone that admitted no reply. “At best, Chinese!”
Then he would add, with a significant wink: “Nothing can be, nothing ought to be, original with the Indians, you understand! I like them greatly, but they mustn’t be allowed to pride themselves upon anything, for then they would take heart and turn into a lot of wretches.”
At other times he would say: “I love the Indians fondly, I’ve constituted myself their father and defender, but it’s necessary to keep everything in its proper place. Some were born to command and others to serve—plainly, that is a truism which can’t be uttered very loudly, but it can be put into practise without many words. For look, the trick depends upon trifles. When you wish to reduce a people to subjection, assure it that it is in subjection. The first day it will laugh, the second protest, the third doubt, and the fourth be convinced. To keep the Filipino docile, he must have repeated to him day after day what he is, to convince him that he is incompetent. What good would it do, besides, to have him believe in something else that would make him wretched? Believe me, it’s an act of charity to hold every creature in his place—that is order, harmony. That constitutes the science of government.”
In referring to his policies, Don Custodio was not satisfied with the word art, and upon pronouncing the word government, he would extend his hand downwards to the height of a man bent over on his knees.
In regard to his religious ideas, he prided himself on being a Catholic, very much a Catholic—ah, Catholic Spain, the land of María Santísima! A liberal could be and ought to be a Catholic, when the reactionaries were setting themselves up as gods or saints, just as a mulatto passes for a white man in Kaffirland. But with all that, he ate meat during Lent, except on Good Friday, never went to confession, believed neither in miracles nor the infallibility of the Pope, and when he attended mass, went to the one at ten o’clock, or to the shortest, the military mass. Although in Madrid he had spoken ill of the religious orders, so as not to be out of harmony with his surroundings, considering them anachronisms, and had hurled curses against the Inquisition, while relating this or that lurid or droll story wherein the habits danced, or rather friars without habits, yet in speaking of the Philippines, which should be ruled by special laws, he would cough, look wise, and again extend his hand downwards to that mysterious altitude.
“The friars are necessary, they’re a necessary evil,” he would declare.
But how he would rage when any Indian dared to doubt the miracles or did not acknowledge the Pope! All the tortures of the Inquisition were insufficient to punish such temerity.
When it was objected that to rule or to live at the expense of ignorance has another and somewhat ugly name and is punished by law when the culprit is a single person, he would justify his position by referring to other colonies. “We,” he would announce in his official tone, “can speak out plainly! We’re not like the British and the Dutch who, in order to hold people in subjection, make use of the lash. We avail ourselves of other means, milder and surer. The salutary influence of the friars is superior to the British lash.”
This last remark made his fortune. For a long time Ben-Zayb continued to use adaptations of it, and with him all Manila. The thinking part of Manila applauded it, and it even got to Madrid, where it was quoted in the Parliament as from a liberal of long residence there. The friars, flattered by the comparison and seeing their prestige enhanced, sent him sacks of chocolate, presents which the incorruptible Don Custodio returned, so that Ben-Zayb immediately compared him to Epaminondas. Nevertheless, this modern Epaminondas made use of the rattan in his choleric moments, and advised its use!
At that time the conventos, fearful that he would render a decision favorable to the petition of the students, increased their gifts, so that on the afternoon when we see him he was more perplexed than ever, his reputation for energy was being compromised. It had been more than a fortnight since he had had the petition in his hands, and only that morning the high official, after praising his zeal, had asked for a decision. Don Custodio had replied with mysterious gravity, giving him to understand that it was not yet completed. The high official had smiled a smile that still worried and haunted him.
As we were saying, he yawned and yawned. In one of these movements, at the moment when he opened his eyes and closed his mouth, his attention was caught by a file of red envelopes, arranged in regular order on a magnificent kamagon desk. On the back of each could be read in large letters: PROJECTS.
For a moment he forgot his troubles and Pepay’s pirouettes, to reflect upon all that those files contained, which had issued from his prolific brain in his hours of inspiration. How many original ideas, how many sublime thoughts, how many means of ameliorating the woes of the Philippines! Immortality and the gratitude of the country were surely his!
Like an old lover who discovers a moldy package of amorous epistles, Don Custodio arose and approached the desk. The first envelope, thick, swollen, and plethoric, bore the title: PROJECTS IN PROJECT.
“No,” he murmured, “they’re excellent things, but it would take a year to read them over.”
The second, also quite voluminous, was entitled: PROJECTS UNDER CONSIDERATION. “No, not those either.”
Then came the PROJECTS NEARING COMPLETION, PROJECTS PRESENTED, PROJECTS REJECTED, PROJECTS APPROVED, PROJECTS POSTPONED. These last envelopes held little, but the least of all was that of the PROJECTS EXECUTED.
Don Custodio wrinkled up his nose—what did it contain? He had completely forgotten what was in it. A sheet of yellowish paper showed from under the flap, as though the envelope were sticking out its tongue. This he drew out and unfolded: it was the famous project for the School of Arts and Trades!
“What the devil!” he exclaimed. “If the Augustinian padres took charge of it—”
Suddenly he slapped his forehead and arched his eyebrows, while a look of triumph overspread his face. “I have reached a decision!” he cried with an oath that was not exactly eureka. “My decision is made!”
Repeating his peculiar eureka five or six times, which struck the air like so many gleeful lashes, he sat down at his desk, radiant with joy, and began to write furiously.

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