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Chapter 6: Basilio


When the bells began their chimes for the midnight mass and those who preferred a good sleep to fiestas and ceremonies arose grumbling at the noise and movement, Basilio cautiously left the house, took two or three turns through the streets to see that he was not watched or followed, and then made his way by unfrequented paths to the road that led to the ancient wood of the Ibarras, which had been acquired by Capitan Tiago when their property was confiscated and sold. As Christmas fell under the waning moon that year, the place was wrapped in darkness. The chimes had ceased, and only the tolling sounded through the darkness of the night amid the murmur of the breeze-stirred branches and the measured roar of the waves on the neighboring lake, like the deep respiration of nature sunk in profound sleep.
Awed by the time and place, the youth moved along with his head down, as if endeavoring to see through the darkness. But from time to time he raised it to gaze at the stars through the open spaces between the treetops and went forward parting the bushes or tearing away the lianas that obstructed his path. At times he retraced his steps, his foot would get caught among the plants, he stumbled over a projecting root or a fallen log. At the end of a half-hour he reached a small brook on the opposite side of which arose a hillock, a black and shapeless mass that in the darkness took on the proportions of a mountain. Basilio crossed the brook on the stones that showed black against the shining surface of the water, ascended the hill, and made his way to a small space enclosed by old and crumbling walls. He approached the balete tree that rose in the center, huge, mysterious, venerable, formed of roots that extended up and down among the confusedly-interlaced trunks.
Pausing before a heap of stones he took off his hat and seemed to be praying. There his mother was buried, and every time he came to the town his first visit was to that neglected and unknown grave. Since he must visit Cabesang Tales’ family the next day, he had taken advantage of the night to perform this duty. Seated on a stone, he seemed to fall into deep thought. His past rose before him like a long black film, rosy at first, then shadowy with spots of blood, then black, black, gray, and then light, ever lighter. The end could not be seen, hidden as it was by a cloud through which shone lights and the hues of dawn.
Thirteen years before to the day, almost to the hour, his mother had died there in the deepest distress, on a glorious night when the moon shone brightly and the Christians of the world were engaged in rejoicing. Wounded and limping, he had reached there in pursuit of her—she mad and terrified, fleeing from her son as from a ghost. There she had died, and there had come a stranger who had commanded him to build a funeral pyre. He had obeyed mechanically and when he returned he found a second stranger by the side of the other’s corpse. What a night and what a morning those were! The stranger helped him raise the pyre, whereon they burned the corpse of the first, dug the grave in which they buried his mother, and then after giving him some pieces of money told him to leave the place. It was the first time that he had seen that man—tall, with blood-shot eyes, pale lips, and a sharp nose.
Entirely alone in the world, without parents or brothers and sisters, he left the town whose authorities inspired in him such great fear and went to Manila to work in some rich house and study at the same time, as many do. His journey was an Odyssey of sleeplessness and startling surprises, in which hunger counted for little, for he ate the fruits in the woods, whither he retreated whenever he made out from afar the uniform of the Civil Guard, a sight that recalled the origin of all his misfortunes. Once in Manila, ragged and sick, he went from door to door offering his services. A boy from the provinces who knew not a single word of Spanish, and sickly besides! Discouraged, hungry, and miserable, he wandered about the streets, attracting attention by the wretchedness of his clothing. How often was he tempted to throw himself under the feet of the horses that flashed by, drawing carriages shining with silver and varnish, thus to end his misery at once! Fortunately, he saw Capitan Tiago, accompanied by Aunt Isabel. He had known them since the days in San Diego, and in his joy believed that in them he saw almost fellow-townsfolk. He followed the carriage until he lost sight of it, and then made inquiries for the house. As it was the very day that Maria Clara entered the nunnery and Capitan Tiago was accordingly depressed, he was admitted as a servant, without pay, but instead with leave to study, if he so wished, in San Juan de Letran.
Dirty, poorly dressed, with only a pair of clogs for footwear, at the end of several months’ stay in Manila, he entered the first year of Latin. On seeing his clothes, his classmates drew away from him, and the professor, a handsome Dominican, never asked him a question, but frowned every time he looked at him. In the eight months that the class continued, the only words that passed between them were his name read from the roll and the daily adsum with which the student responded. With what bitterness he left the class each day, and, guessing the reason for the treatment accorded him, what tears sprang into his eyes and what complaints were stifled in his heart! How he had wept and sobbed over the grave of his mother, relating to her his hidden sorrows, humiliations, and affronts, when at the approach of Christmas Capitan Tiago had taken him back to San Diego! Yet he memorized the lessons without [51] omitting a comma, although he understood scarcely any part of them. But at length he became resigned, noticing that among the three or four hundred in his class only about forty merited the honor of being questioned, because they attracted the professor’s attention by their appearance, some prank, comicality, or other cause. The greater part of the students congratulated themselves that they thus escaped the work of thinking and understanding the subject. “One goes to college, not to learn and study, but to gain credit for the course, so if the book can be memorized, what more can be asked—the year is thus gained.”
Basilio passed the examinations by answering the solitary question asked him, like a machine, without stopping or breathing, and in the amusement of the examiners won the passing certificate. His nine companions—they were examined in batches of ten in order to save time—did not have such good luck, but were condemned to repeat the year of brutalization.
In the second year the game-cock that he tended won a [52] large sum and he received from Capitan Tiago a big tip, which he immediately invested in the purchase of shoes and a felt hat. With these and the clothes given him by his employer, which he made over to fit his person, his appearance became more decent, but did not get beyond that. In such a large class a great deal was needed to attract the professor’s attention, and the student who in the first year did not make himself known by some special quality, or did not capture the good-will of the professors, could with difficulty make himself known in the rest of his school-days. But Basilio kept on, for perseverance was his chief trait.
His fortune seemed to change somewhat when he entered the third year. His professor happened to be a very jolly fellow, fond of jokes and of making the students laugh, complacent enough in that he almost always had his favorites recite the lessons—in fact, he was satisfied with anything. At this time Basilio now wore shoes and a clean and well-ironed camisa. As his professor noticed that he laughed very little at the jokes and that his large eyes seemed to be asking something like an eternal question, he took him for a fool, and one day decided to make him conspicuous by calling on him for the lesson. Basilio recited it from beginning to end, without hesitating over a single letter, so the professor called him a parrot and told a story to make the class laugh. Then to increase the hilarity and justify the epithet he asked several questions, at the same time winking to his favorites, as if to say to them, “You’ll see how we’re going to amuse ourselves.”
Basilio now understood Spanish and answered the questions with the plain intention of making no one laugh. This disgusted everybody, the expected absurdity did not materialize, no one could laugh, and the good friar never pardoned him for having defrauded the hopes of the class and disappointed his own prophecies. But who would expect anything worth while to come from a head so badly combed and placed on an Indian poorly shod, classified until recently among the arboreal animals? As in other centers of learning, where the teachers are honestly desirous that the students should learn, such discoveries usually delight the instructors, so in a college managed by men convinced that for the most part knowledge is an evil, at least for the students, the episode of Basilio produced a bad impression and he was not questioned again during the year. Why should he be, when he made no one laugh?
Quite discouraged and thinking of abandoning his studies, he passed to the fourth year of Latin. Why study at all, why not sleep like the others and trust to luck?
One of the two professors was very popular, beloved by all, passing for a sage, a great poet, and a man of advanced ideas. One day when he accompanied the collegians on their walk, he had a dispute with some cadets, which resulted in a skirmish and a challenge. No doubt recalling his brilliant youth, the professor preached a crusade and promised good marks to all who during the promenade on the following Sunday would take part in the fray. The week was a lively one—there were occasional encounters in which canes and sabers were crossed, and in one of these Basilio distinguished himself. Borne in triumph by the students and presented to the professor, he thus became known to him and came to be his favorite. Partly for this reason and partly from his diligence, that year he received the highest marks, medals included, in view of which Capitan Tiago, who, since his daughter had become a nun, exhibited some aversion to the friars, in a fit of good humor induced him to transfer to the Ateneo Municipal, the fame of which was then in its apogee.
Here a new world opened before his eyes—a system of instruction that he had never dreamed of. Except for a few superfluities and some childish things, he was filled with admiration for the methods there used and with gratitude for the zeal of the instructors. His eyes at times filled with tears when he thought of the four previous years during which, from lack of means, he had been unable to study at that center. He had to make extraordinary efforts to get himself to the level of those who had had a good preparatory course, and it might be said that in that one year he learned the whole five of the secondary curricula. He received his bachelor’s degree, to the great satisfaction of his instructors, who in the examinations showed themselves to be proud of him before the Dominican examiners sent there to inspect the school. One of these, as if to dampen such great enthusiasm a little, asked him where he had studied the first years of Latin.
“In San Juan de Letran, Padre,” answered Basilio.
“Aha! Of course! He’s not bad,—in Latin,” the Dominican then remarked with a slight smile.
From choice and temperament he selected the course in medicine. Capitan Tiago preferred the law, in order that he might have a lawyer free, but knowledge of the laws is not sufficient to secure clientage in the Philippines—it is necessary to win the cases, and for this friendships are required, influence in certain spheres, a good deal of astuteness. Capitan Tiago finally gave in, remembering that medical students get on intimate terms with corpses, and for some time he had been seeking a poison to put on the gaffs of his game-cocks, the best he had been able to secure thus far being the blood of a Chinaman who had died of syphilis.
With equal diligence, or more if possible, the young man continued this course, and after the third year began to render medical services with such great success that he was not only preparing a brilliant future for himself but also earning enough to dress well and save some money. This was the last year of the course and in two months he would be a physician; he would come back to the town, he would marry Juliana, and they would be happy. The granting of his licentiateship was not only assured, but he expected it to be the crowning act of his school-days, for he had been designated to deliver the valedictory at the graduation, and already he saw himself in the rostrum, before the whole faculty, the object of public attention. All those heads, leaders of Manila science, half-hidden in their colored capes; all the women who came there out of curiosity and who years before had gazed at him, if not with disdain, at least with indifference; all those men whose carriages had once been about to crush him down in the mud like a dog: they would listen attentively, and he was going to say something to them that would not be trivial, something that had never before resounded in that place, he was going to forget himself in order to aid the poor students of the future—and he would make his entrance on his work in the world with that speech.

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