Search This Blog

Chapter 36: Ben Zayb's Afflictions

Immediately upon hearing of the incident, after lights had been brought and the scarcely dignified attitudes of the startled gods revealed, Ben-Zayb, filled with holy indignation, and with the approval of the press-censor secured beforehand, hastened home—an entresol where he lived in a mess with others—to write an article that would be the sublimest ever penned under the skies of the Philippines. The Captain-General would leave disconsolate if he did not first enjoy his dithyrambs, and this Ben-Zayb, in his kindness of heart, could not allow. Hence he sacrificed the dinner and ball, nor did he sleep that night.
Sonorous exclamations of horror, of indignation, to fancy that the world was smashing to pieces and the stars, the eternal stars, were clashing together! Then a mysterious introduction, filled with allusions, veiled hints, then an account of the affair, and the final peroration. He multiplied the flourishes and exhausted all his euphemisms in describing the drooping shoulders and the tardy baptism of salad his Excellency had received on his Olympian brow, he eulogized the agility with which the General had recovered a vertical position, placing his head where his legs had been, and vice versa, then intoned a hymn to Providence for having so solicitously guarded those sacred bones. The paragraph turned out to be so perfect that his Excellency appeared as a hero, and fell higher, as Victor Hugo said.
He wrote, erased, added, and polished, so that, without wanting in veracity—this was his special merit as a journalist—the whole would be an epic, grand for the seven gods, cowardly and base for the unknown thief, “who had executed himself, terror-stricken, and in the very act convinced of the enormity of his crime.”
He explained Padre Irene’s act of plunging under the table as “an impulse of innate valor, which the habit of a God of peace and gentleness, worn throughout a whole life, had been unable to extinguish,” for Padre Irene had tried to hurl himself upon the thief and had taken a straight course along the submensal route. In passing, he spoke of submarine passages, mentioned a project of Don Custodio’s, called attention to the liberal education and wide travels of the priest. Padre Salvi’s swoon was the excessive sorrow that took possession of the virtuous Franciscan to see the little fruit borne among the Indians by his pious sermons, while the immobility and fright of the other guests, among them the Countess, who “sustained” Padre Salvi (she grabbed him), were the serenity and sang-froid of heroes, inured to danger in the performance of their duties, beside whom the Roman senators surprised by the Gallic invaders were nervous schoolgirls frightened at painted cockroaches.
Afterwards, to form a contrast, the picture of the thief: fear, madness, confusion, the fierce look, the distorted features, and—force of moral superiority in the race—his religious awe to see assembled there such august personages! Here came in opportunely a long imprecation, a harangue, a diatribe against the perversion of good customs, hence the necessity of a permanent military tribunal, “a declaration of martial law within the limits already so declared, special legislation, energetic and repressive, because it is in every way needful, it is of imperative importance to impress upon the malefactors and criminals that if the heart is generous and paternal for those who are submissive and obedient to the law, the hand is strong, firm, inexorable, hard, and severe for those who against all reason fail to respect it and who insult the sacred institutions of the fatherland. Yes, gentlemen, this is demanded not only for the welfare of these islands, not only for the welfare of all mankind, but also in the name of Spain, the honor of the Spanish name, the prestige of the Iberian people, because before all things else Spaniards we are, and the flag of Spain,” etc.
He terminated the article with this farewell: “Go in peace, gallant warrior, you who with expert hand have guided the destinies of this country in such calamitous times! Go in peace to breathe the balmy breezes of Manzanares! We shall remain here like faithful sentinels to venerate your memory, to admire your wise dispositions, to avenge the infamous attempt upon your splendid gift, which we will recover even if we have to dry up the seas! Such a precious relic will be for this country an eternal monument to your splendor, your presence of mind, your gallantry!”
In this rather confused way he concluded the article and before dawn sent it to the printing-office, of course with the censor’s permit. Then he went to sleep like Napoleon, after he had arranged the plan for the battle of Jena.
But at dawn he was awakened to have the sheets of copy returned with a note from the editor saying that his Excellency had positively and severely forbidden any mention of the affair, and had further ordered the denial of any versions and comments that might get abroad, discrediting them as exaggerated rumors.
To Ben-Zayb this blow was the murder of a beautiful and sturdy child, born and nurtured with such great pain and fatigue. Where now hurl the Catilinarian pride, the splendid exhibition of warlike crime-avenging materials? And to think that within a month or two he was going to leave the Philippines, and the article could not be published in Spain, since how could he say those things about the criminals of Madrid, where other ideas prevailed, where extenuating circumstances were sought, where facts were weighed, where there were juries, and so on? Articles such as his were like certain poisonous rums that are manufactured in Europe, good enough to be sold among the negroes, good for negroes, with the difference that if the negroes did not drink them they would not be destroyed, while Ben-Zayb’s articles, whether the Filipinos read them or not, had their effect.
“If only some other crime might be committed today or tomorrow,” he mused.
With the thought of that child dead before seeing the light, those frozen buds, and feeling his eyes fill with tears, he dressed himself to call upon the editor. But the editor shrugged his shoulders; his Excellency had forbidden it because if it should be divulged that seven of the greater gods had let themselves be surprised and robbed by a nobody, while they brandished knives and forks, that would endanger the integrity of the fatherland! So he had ordered that no search be made for the lamp or the thief, and had recommended to his successors that they should not run the risk of dining in any private house, without being surrounded by halberdiers and guards. As those who knew anything about the events that night in Don Timoteo’s house were for the most part military officials and government employees, it was not difficult to suppress the affair in public, for it concerned the integrity of the fatherland. Before this name Ben-Zayb bowed his head heroically, thinking about Abraham, Guzman El Bueno, or at least, Brutus and other heroes of antiquity.
Such a sacrifice could not remain unrewarded, the gods of journalism being pleased with Abraham Ben-Zayb. Almost upon the hour came the reporting angel bearing the sacrificial lamb in the shape of an assault committed at a country-house on the Pasig, where certain friars were spending the heated season. Here was his opportunity and Ben-Zayb praised his gods.
“The robbers got over two thousand pesos, leaving badly wounded one friar and two servants. The curate defended himself as well as he could behind a chair, which was smashed in his hands.”
“Wait, wait!” said Ben-Zayb, taking notes. “Forty or fifty outlaws traitorously—revolvers, bolos, shotguns, pistols—lion at bay—chair—splinters flying—barbarously wounded—ten thousand pesos!”
So great was his enthusiasm that he was not content with mere reports, but proceeded in person to the scene of the crime, composing on the road a Homeric description of the fight. A harangue in the mouth of the leader? A scornful defiance on the part of the priest? All the metaphors and similes applied to his Excellency, Padre Irene, and Padre Salvi would exactly fit the wounded friar and the description of the thief would serve for each of the outlaws. The imprecation could be expanded, since he could talk of religion, of the faith, of charity, of the ringing of bells, of what the Indians owed to the friars, he could get sentimental and melt into Castelarian epigrams and lyric periods. The señoritas of the city would read the article and murmur, “Ben-Zayb, bold as a lion and tender as a lamb!”
But when he reached the scene, to his great astonishment he learned that the wounded friar was no other than Padre Camorra, sentenced by his Provincial to expiate in the pleasant country-house on the banks of the Pasig his pranks in Tiani. He had a slight scratch on his hand and a bruise on his head received from flattening himself out on the floor. The robbers numbered three or four, armed only with bolos, the sum stolen fifty pesos!
“It won’t do!” exclaimed Ben-Zayb. “Shut up! You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“How don’t I know, puñales?
“Don’t be a fool—the robbers must have numbered more.”
“You ink-slinger—”
So they had quite an altercation. What chiefly concerned Ben-Zayb was not to throw away the article, to give importance to the affair, so that he could use the peroration.
But a fearful rumor cut short their dispute. The robbers caught had made some important revelations. One of the outlaws under Matanglawin (Cabesang Tales) had made an appointment with them to join his band in Santa Mesa, thence to sack the conventos and houses of the wealthy. They would be guided by a Spaniard, tall and sunburnt, with white hair, who said that he was acting under the orders of the General, whose great friend he was, and they had been further assured that the artillery and various regiments would join them, wherefore they were to entertain no fear at all. The tulisanes would be pardoned and have a third part of the booty assigned to them. The signal was to have been a cannon-shot, but having waited for it in vain the tulisanes, thinking themselves deceived, separated, some going back to their homes, some returning to the mountains vowing vengeance on the Spaniard, who had thus failed twice to keep his word. Then they, the robbers caught, had decided to do something on their own account, attacking the country-house that they found closest at hand, resolving religiously to give two-thirds of the booty to the Spaniard with white hair, if perchance he should call upon them for it.
The description being recognized as that of Simoun, the declaration was received as an absurdity and the robber subjected to all kinds of tortures, including the electric machine, for his impious blasphemy. But news of the disappearance of the jeweler having attracted the attention of the whole Escolta, and the sacks of powder and great quantities of cartridges having been discovered in his house, the story began to wear an appearance of truth. Mystery began to enwrap the affair, enveloping it in clouds; there were whispered conversations, coughs, suspicious looks, suggestive comments, and trite second-hand remarks. Those who were on the inside were unable to get over their astonishment, they put on long faces, turned pale, and but little was wanting for many persons to lose their minds in realizing certain things that had before passed unnoticed.
“We’ve had a narrow escape! Who would have said—”
In the afternoon Ben-Zayb, his pockets filled with revolvers and cartridges, went to see Don Custodio, whom he found hard at work over a project against American jewelers. In a hushed voice he whispered between the palms of his hands into the journalist’s ear mysterious words.
“Really?” questioned Ben-Zayb, slapping his hand on his pocket and paling visibly.
“Wherever he may be found—” The sentence was completed with an expressive pantomime. Don Custodio raised both arms to the height of his face, with the right more bent than the left, turned the palms of his hands toward the floor, closed one eye, and made two movements in advance. “Ssh! Ssh!” he hissed.
“And the diamonds?” inquired Ben-Zayb.
“If they find him—” He went through another pantomime with the fingers of his right hand, spreading them out and clenching them together like the closing of a fan, clutching out with them somewhat in the manner of the wings of a wind-mill sweeping imaginary objects toward itself with practised skill. Ben-Zayb responded with another pantomime, opening his eyes wide, arching his eyebrows and sucking in his breath eagerly as though nutritious air had just been discovered.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Your thoughts?