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Chapter 23: A Corpse


Simoun had not, in fact, gone to the theater. Already, at seven o’clock in the evening, he had left his house looking worried and gloomy. His servants saw him return twice, accompanied by different individuals, and at eight o’clock Makaraig encountered him pacing along Calle Hospital near the nunnery of St. Clara, just when the bells of its church were ringing a funeral knell. At nine Camaroncocido saw him again, in the neighborhood of the theater, speak with a person who seemed to be a student, pay the latter’s admission to the show, and again disappear among the shadows of the trees.
“What is it to me?” again muttered Camaroncocido. “What do I get out of watching over the populace?”
Basilio, as Makaraig said, had not gone to the show. The poor student, after returning from San Diego, whither he had gone to ransom Juli, his future bride, from her servitude, had turned again to his studies, spending his time in the hospital, in studying, or in nursing Capitan Tiago, whose affliction he was trying to cure.
The invalid had become an intolerable character. During his bad spells, when he felt depressed from lack of opium, the doses of which Basilio was trying to reduce, he would scold, mistreat, and abuse the boy, who bore it resignedly, conscious that he was doing good to one to whom he owed so much, and yielded only in the last extremity. His vicious appetite satisfied, Capitan Tiago would fall into a good humor, become tender, and call him his son, tearfully recalling the youth’s services, how well he administered the estates, and would even talk of making him his heir. Basilio would smile bitterly and reflect that in this world complaisance with vice is rewarded better than fulfilment of duty. Not a few times did he feel tempted to give free rein to the craving and conduct his benefactor to the grave by a path of flowers and smiling illusions rather than lengthen his life along a road of sacrifice.
“What a fool I am!” he often said to himself. “People are stupid and then pay for it.”
But he would shake his head as he thought of Juli, of the wide future before him. He counted upon living without a stain on his conscience, so he continued the treatment prescribed, and bore everything patiently.
Yet with all his care the sick man, except for short periods of improvement, grew worse. Basilio had planned gradually to reduce the amount of the dose, or at least not to let him injure himself by increasing it, but on returning from the hospital or some visit he would find his patient in the heavy slumber produced by the opium, driveling, pale as a corpse. The young man could not explain whence the drug came: the only two persons who visited the house were Simoun and Padre Irene, the former rarely, while the latter never ceased exhorting him to be severe and inexorable with the treatment, to take no notice of the invalid’s ravings, for the main object was to save him.
“Do your duty, young man,” was Padre Irene’s constant admonition. “Do your duty.” Then he would deliver a sermon on this topic with such great conviction and enthusiasm that Basilio would begin to feel kindly toward the preacher. Besides, Padre Irene promised to get him a fine assignment, a good province, and even hinted at the possibility of having him appointed a professor. Without being carried away by illusions, Basilio pretended to believe in them and went on obeying the dictates of his own conscience.
That night, while Les Cloches de Corneville was being presented, Basilio was studying at an old table by the light of an oil-lamp, whose thick glass globe partly illuminated his melancholy features. An old skull, some human bones, and a few books carefully arranged covered the table, whereon there was also a pan of water with a sponge. The smell of opium that proceeded from the adjoining bedroom made the air heavy and inclined him to sleep, but he overcame the desire by bathing his temples and eyes from time to time, determined not to go to sleep until he had finished the book, which he had borrowed and must return as soon as possible. It was a volume of the Medicina Legal y ToxicologĂ­a of Dr. Friata, the only book that the professor would use, and Basilio lacked money to buy a copy, since, under the pretext of its being forbidden by the censor in Manila and the necessity for bribing many government employees to get it in, the booksellers charged a high price for it.
So absorbed wras the youth in his studies that he had not given any attention at all to some pamphlets that had been sent to him from some unknown source, pamphlets that treated of the Philippines, among which figured those that were attracting the greatest notice at the time because of their harsh and insulting manner of referring to the natives of the country. Basilio had no time to open them, and he was perhaps restrained also by the thought that there is nothing pleasant about receiving an insult or a provocation without having any means of replying or defending oneself. The censorship, in fact, permitted insults to the Filipinos but prohibited replies on their part.
In the midst of the silence that reigned in the house, broken only by a feeble snore that issued now and then from the adjoining bedroom, Basilio heard light footfalls on the stairs, footfalls that soon crossed the hallway and approached the room where he was. Raising his head, he saw the door open and to his great surprise appeared the sinister figure of the jeweler Simoun, who since the scene in San Diego had not come to visit either himself or Capitan Tiago.
“How is the sick man?” he inquired, throwing a rapid glance about the room and fixing his attention on the pamphlets, the leaves of which were still uncut.
“The beating of his heart is scarcely perceptible, his pulse is very weak, his appetite entirely gone,” replied Basilio in a low voice with a sad smile. “He sweats profusely in the early morning.”
Noticing that Simoun kept his face turned toward the pamphlets and fearing that he might reopen the subject of their conversation in the wood, he went on: “His system is saturated with poison. He may die any day, as though struck by lightning. The least irritation, any excitement may kill him.”
“Like the Philippines!” observed Simoun lugubriously.
Basilio was unable to refrain from a gesture of impatience, but he was determined not to recur to the old subject, so he proceeded as if he had heard nothing: “What weakens him the most is the nightmares, his terrors—”
“Like the government!” again interrupted Simoun.
“Several nights ago he awoke in the dark and thought that he had gone blind. He raised a disturbance, lamenting and scolding me, saying that I had put his eyes out. When I entered his room with a light he mistook me for Padre Irene and called me his saviour.”
“Like the government, exactly!”
“Last night,” continued Basilio, paying no attention, “he got up begging for his favorite game-cock, the one that died three years ago, and I had to give him a chicken. Then he heaped blessings upon me and promised me many thousands—”
At that instant a clock struck half-past ten. Simoun shuddered and stopped the youth with a gesture.
“Basilio,” he said in a low, tense voice, “listen to me carefully, for the moments are precious. I see that you haven’t opened the pamphlets that I sent you. You’re not interested in your country.”
The youth started to protest.
“It’s useless,” went on Simoun dryly. “Within an hour the revolution is going to break out at a signal from me, and tomorrow there’ll be no studies, there’ll be no University, there’ll be nothing but fighting and butchery. I have everything ready and my success is assured. When we triumph, all those who could have helped us and did not do so will be treated as enemies. Basilio, I’ve come to offer you death or a future!”
“Death or a future!” the boy echoed, as though he did not understand.
“With us or with the government,” rejoined Simoun. “With your country or with your oppressors. Decide, for time presses! I’ve come to save you because of the memories that unite us!”
“With my country or with the oppressors!” repeated Basilio in a low tone. The youth was stupefied. He gazed at the jeweler with eyes in which terror was reflected, he felt his limbs turn cold, while a thousand confused ideas whirled about in his mind. He saw the streets running blood, he heard the firing, he found himself among the dead and wounded, and by the peculiar force of his inclinations fancied himself in an operator’s blouse, cutting off legs and extracting bullets.
“The will of the government is in my hands,” said Simoun. “I’ve diverted and wasted its feeble strength and resources on foolish expeditions, dazzling it with the plunder it might seize. Its heads are now in the theater, calm and unsuspecting, thinking of a night of pleasure, but not one shall again repose upon a pillow. I have men and regiments at my disposition: some I have led to believe that the uprising is ordered by the General; others that the friars are bringing it about; some I have bought with promises, with employments, with money; many, very many, are acting from revenge, because they are oppressed and see it as a matter of killing or being killed. Cabesang Tales is below, he has come with me here! Again I ask you—will you come with us or do you prefer to expose yourself to the resentment of my followers? In critical moments, to declare oneself neutral is to be exposed to the wrath of both the contending parties.”
Basilio rubbed his hand over his face several times, as if he were trying to wake from a nightmare. He felt that his brow was cold.
“Decide!” repeated Simoun.
“And what—what would I have to do?” asked the youth in a weak and broken voice.
“A very simple thing,” replied Simoun, his face lighting up with a ray of hope. “As I have to direct the movement, I cannot get away from the scene of action. I want you, while the attention of the whole city is directed elsewhere, at the head of a company to force the doors of the nunnery of St. Clara and take from there a person whom only you, besides myself and Capitan Tiago, can recognize. You’ll run no risk at all.”
“Maria Clara!” exclaimed Basilio.
“Yes, Maria Clara,” repeated Simoun, and for the first time his voice became human and compassionate. “I want to save her; to save her I have wished to live, I have returned. I am starting the revolution, because only a revolution can open the doors of the nunneries.”
“Ay!” sighed Basilio, clasping his hands. “You’ve come late, too late!”
“Why?” inquired Simoun with a frown.
“Maria Clara is dead!”
Simoun arose with a bound and stood over the youth. “She’s dead?” he demanded in a terrible voice.
“This afternoon, at six. By now she must be—”
“It’s a lie!” roared Simoun, pale and beside himself. “It’s false! Maria Clara lives, Maria Clara must live! It’s a cowardly excuse! She’s not dead, and this night I’ll free her or tomorrow you die!”
Basilio shrugged his shoulders. “Several days ago she was taken ill and I went to the nunnery for news of her. Look, here is Padre Salvi’s letter, brought by Padre Irene. Capitan Tiago wept all the evening, kissing his daughter’s picture and begging her forgiveness, until at last he smoked an enormous quantity of opium. This evening her knell was tolled.”
“Ah!” exclaimed Simoun, pressing his hands to his head and standing motionless. He remembered to have actually heard the knell while he was pacing about in the vicinity of the nunnery.
“Dead!” he murmured in a voice so low that it seemed to be a ghost whispering. “Dead! Dead without my having seen her, dead without knowing that I lived for her—dead!”
Feeling a terrible storm, a tempest of whirlwind and thunder without a drop of water, sobs without tears, cries without words, rage in his breast and threaten to burst out like burning lava long repressed, he rushed precipitately from the room. Basilio heard him descend the stairs with unsteady tread, stepping heavily, he heard a stifled cry, a cry that seemed to presage death, so solemn, deep, and sad that he arose from his chair pale and trembling, but he could hear the footsteps die away and the noisy closing of the door to the street.
“Poor fellow!” he murmured, while his eyes filled with tears. Heedless now of his studies, he let his gaze wander into space as he pondered over the fate of those two beings: he—young, rich, educated, master of his fortunes, with a brilliant future before him; she—fair as a dream, pure, full of faith and innocence, nurtured amid love and laughter, destined to a happy existence, to be adored in the family and respected in the world; and yet of those two beings, filled with love, with illusions and hopes, by a fatal destiny he wandered over the world, dragged ceaselessly through a whirl of blood and tears, sowing evil instead of doing good, undoing virtue and encouraging vice, while she was dying in the mysterious shadows of the cloister where she had sought peace and perhaps found suffering, where she entered pure and stainless and expired like a crushed flower!
Sleep in peace, ill-starred daughter of my hapless fatherland! Bury in the grave the enchantments of youth, faded in their prime! When a people cannot offer its daughters a tranquil home under the protection of sacred liberty, when a man can only leave to his widow blushes, tears to his mother, and slavery to his children, you do well to condemn yourself to perpetual chastity, stifling within you the germ of a future generation accursed! Well for you that you have not to shudder in your grave, hearing the cries of those who groan in darkness, of those who feel that they have wings and yet are fettered, of those who are stifled from lack of liberty! Go, go with your poet’s dreams into the regions of the infinite, spirit of woman dim-shadowed in the moonlight’s beam, whispered in the bending arches of the bamboo-brakes! Happy she who dies lamented, she who leaves in the heart that loves her a pure picture, a sacred remembrance, unspotted by the base passions engendered by the years! Go, we shall remember you! In the clear air of our native land, under its azure sky, above the billows of the lake set amid sapphire hills and emerald shores, in the crystal streams shaded by the bamboos, bordered by flowers, enlivened by the beetles and butterflies with their uncertain and wavering flight as though playing with the air, in the silence of our forests, in the singing of our rivers, in the diamond showers of our waterfalls, in the resplendent light of our moon, in the sighs of the night breeze, in all that may call up the vision of the beloved, we must eternally see you as we dreamed of you, fair, beautiful, radiant with hope, pure as the light, yet still sad and melancholy in the contemplation of our woes!

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