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Chapter 5: A Cochero's Christmas Eve


Basilio reached San Diego just as the Christmas Eve procession was passing through the streets. He had been delayed on the road for several hours because the cochero, having forgotten his cedula, was held up by the Civil Guard, had his memory jogged by a few blows from a rifle-butt, and afterwards was taken before the commandant. Now the carromata was again detained to let the procession pass, while the abused cochero took off his hat reverently and recited a paternoster to the first image that came along, which seemed to be that of a great saint. It was the figure of an old man with an exceptionally long beard, seated at the edge of a grave under a tree filled with all kinds of stuffed birds. A kalan with a clay jar, a mortar, and a kalikut for mashing buyo were his only utensils, as if to indicate that he lived on the border of the tomb and was doing his cooking there. This was the Methuselah of the religious iconography of the Philippines; his colleague and perhaps contemporary is called in Europe Santa Claus, and is still more smiling and agreeable.
“In the time of the saints,” thought the cochero, “surely there were no civil-guards, because one can’t live long on blows from rifle-butts.”
Behind the great old man came the three Magian Kings on ponies that were capering about, especially that of the negro Melchior, which seemed to be about to trample its companions.
“No, there couldn’t have been any civil-guards,” decided the cochero, secretly envying those fortunate times, “because if there had been, that negro who is cutting up [42] such capers beside those two Spaniards”—Gaspar and Bathazar—“would have gone to jail.”
Then, observing that the negro wore a crown and was a king, like the other two, the Spaniards, his thoughts naturally turned to the king of the Indians, and he sighed. “Do you know, sir,” he asked Basilio respectfully, “if his right foot is loose yet?”
Basilio had him repeat the question. “Whose right foot?”
“The King’s!” whispered the cochero mysteriously.
“What King’s?”
“Our King’s, the King of the Indians.”
Basilio smiled and shrugged his shoulders, while the cochero again sighed. The Indians in the country places preserve the legend that their king, imprisoned and chained in the cave of San Mateo, will come some day to free them. Every hundredth year he breaks one of his chains, so that he now has his hands and his left foot loose—only the right foot remains bound. This king causes the earthquakes when he struggles or stirs himself, and he is so strong that in shaking hands with him it is necessary to extend to him a bone, which he crushes in his grasp. For some unexplainable reason the Indians call him King Bernardo, perhaps by confusing him with Bernardo del Carpio.
“When he gets his right foot loose,” muttered the cochero, stifling another sigh, “I’ll give him my horses, and offer him my services even to death, for he’ll free us from the Civil Guard.” With a melancholy gaze he watched the Three Kings move on.
The boys came behind in two files, sad and serious as though they were there under compulsion. They lighted their way, some with torches, others with tapers, and others with paper lanterns on bamboo poles, while they recited the rosary at the top of their voices, as though quarreling with somebody. Afterwards came St. Joseph on a modest float, with a look of sadness and resignation on his face, carrying his stalk of lilies, as he moved along between two civil-guards as though he were a prisoner. This enabled the cochero to understand the expression on the saint’s face, but whether the sight of the guards troubled him or he had no great respect for a saint who would travel in such company, he did not recite a single requiem.
Behind St. Joseph came the girls bearing lights, their heads covered with handkerchiefs knotted under their chins, also reciting the rosary, but with less wrath than the boys. In their midst were to be seen several lads dragging along little rabbits made of Japanese paper, lighted by red candles, with their short paper tails erect. The lads brought those toys into the procession to enliven the birth of the Messiah. The little animals, fat and round as eggs, seemed to be so pleased that at times they would take a leap, lose their balance, fall, and catch fire. The owner would then hasten to extinguish such burning enthusiasm, puffing and blowing until he finally beat out the fire, and then, seeing his toy destroyed, would fall to weeping. The cochero observed with sadness that the race of little paper animals disappeared each year, as if they had been attacked by the pest like the living animals. He, the abused Sinong, remembered his two magnificent horses, which, at the advice of the curate, he had caused to be blessed to save them from plague, spending therefor ten pesos—for neither the government nor the curates have found any better remedy for the epizootic—and they had died after all. Yet he consoled himself by remembering also that after the shower of holy water, the Latin phrases of the padre, and the ceremonies, the horses had become so vain and self-important that they would not even allow him, Sinong, a good Christian, to put them in harness, and he had not dared to whip them, because a tertiary sister had said that they were sanctified.
The procession was closed by the Virgin dressed as the Divine Shepherd, with a pilgrim’s hat of wide brim and long plumes to indicate the journey to Jerusalem. That the birth might be made more explicable, the curate had ordered her figure to be stuffed with rags and cotton under her skirt, so that no one could be in any doubt as to her condition. It was a very beautiful image, with the same sad expression of all the images that the Filipinos make, and a mien somewhat ashamed, doubtless at the way in which the curate had arranged her. In front came several singers and behind, some musicians with the usual civil-guards. The curate, as was to be expected after what he had done, was not in his place, for that year he was greatly displeased at having to use all his diplomacy and shrewdness to convince the townspeople that they should pay thirty pesos for each Christmas mass instead of the usual twenty. “You’re turning filibusters!” he had said to them.
The cochero must have been greatly preoccupied with the sights of the procession, for when it had passed and Basilio ordered him to go on, he did not notice that the lamp on his carromata had gone out. Neither did Basilio notice it, his attention being devoted to gazing at the houses, which were illuminated inside and out with little paper lanterns of fantastic shapes and colors, stars surrounded by hoops with long streamers which produced a pleasant murmur when shaken by the wind, and fishes of movable heads and tails, having a glass of oil inside, suspended from the eaves of the windows in the delightful fashion of a happy and homelike fiesta. But he also noticed that the lights were flickering, that the stars were being eclipsed, that this year had fewer ornaments and hangings than the former, which in turn had had even fewer than the year preceding it. There was scarcely any music in the streets, while the agreeable noises of the kitchen were not to be heard in all the houses, which the youth ascribed to the fact that for some time things had been going badly, the sugar did not bring a good price, the rice crops had failed, over half the live stock had died, but the taxes rose and increased for some inexplicable reason, while the abuses of the Civil Guard became more frequent to kill off the happiness of the people in the towns.
He was just pondering over this when an energetic “Halt!” resounded. They were passing in front of the barracks and one of the guards had noticed the extinguished lamp of the carromata, which could not go on without it. A hail of insults fell about the poor cochero, who vainly excused himself with the length of the procession. He would be arrested for violating the ordinances and afterwards advertised in the newspapers, so the peaceful and prudent Basilio left the carromata and went his way on foot, carrying his valise. This was San Diego, his native town, where he had not a single relative.
The only, house wherein there seemed to be any mirth was Capitan Basilio’s. Hens and chickens cackled their death chant to the accompaniment of dry and repeated strokes, as of meat pounded on a chopping-block, and the sizzling of grease in the frying-pans. A feast was going on in the house, and even into the street there passed a certain draught of air, saturated with the succulent odors of stews and confections. In the entresol Basilio saw Sinang, as small as when our readers knew her before, although a little rounder and plumper since her marriage. Then to his great surprise he made out, further in at the back of the room, chatting with Capitan Basilio, the curate, and the alferez of the Civil Guard, no less than the jeweler Simoun, as ever with his blue goggles and his nonchalant air.
“It’s understood, SeƱor Simoun,” Capitan Basilio was saying, “that we’ll go to Tiani to see your jewels.”
“I would also go,” remarked the alferez, “because I need a watch-chain, but I’m so busy—if Capitan Basilio would undertake—”
Capitan Basilio would do so with the greatest pleasure, and as he wished to propitiate the soldier in order that he might not be molested in the persons of his laborers, he refused to accept the money which the alferez was trying to get out of his pocket.
“It’s my Christmas gift!”
“I can’t allow you, Capitan, I can’t permit it!”
“All right! We’ll settle up afterwards,” replied Capitan Basilio with a lordly gesture.
Also, the curate wanted a pair of lady’s earrings and requested the capitan to buy them for him. “I want them first class. Later we’ll fix up the account.”
“Don’t worry about that, Padre,” said the good man, who wished to be at peace with the Church also. An unfavorable report on the curate’s part could do him great damage and cause him double the expense, for those earrings were a forced present. Simoun in the meantime was praising his jewels.
“That fellow is fierce!” mused the student. “He does business everywhere. And if I can believe a certain person, he buys from some gentlemen for a half of their value the same jewels that he himself has sold for presents. Everybody in this country prospers but us!”
He made his way to his house, or rather Capitan Tiago’s, now occupied by a trustworthy man who had held him in great esteem since the day when he had seen him perform a surgical operation with the same coolness that he would cut up a chicken. This man was now waiting to give him the news. Two of the laborers were prisoners, one was to be deported, and a number of carabaos had died.
“The same old story,” exclaimed Basilio, in a bad humor. “You always receive me with the same complaints.” The youth was not overbearing, but as he was at times scolded by Capitan Tiago, he liked in his turn to chide those under his orders.
The old man cast about for something new. “One of our tenants has died, the old fellow who took care of the woods, and the curate refused to bury him as a pauper, saying that his master is a rich man.”
“What did he die of?”
“Of old age.”
“Get out! To die of old age! It must at least have been some disease.” Basilio in his zeal for making autopsies wanted diseases.
“Haven’t you anything new to tell me? You take away my appetite relating the same old things. Do you know anything of Sagpang?”
The old man then told him about the kidnapping of Cabesang Tales. Basilio became thoughtful and said nothing more—his appetite had completely left him.

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