WHILE the peasants who had saluted the magistrate were continuing their talk, Frasquita carefully sprinkled and swept the paved place which served as a courtyard to the mill, and placed half a dozen chairs where the vine-leaves of the arbor were still thickest. Tio Lucas had climbed upon the arbor for the purpose of cutting the finest bunches of grapes, and arranged them artistically in a basket.
“You know, Frasquita,” said Tio Lucas from the top of the arbor, “the magistrate has fallen in love with you, and his motives are bad.”
“I told you so a long time ago,” answered the woman from the north. “But let him sigh. Take care you don’t fall, Lucas!”
“Don’t be afraid. I am holding on. He evidently likes your looks.”
“You had better stop your gossiping,” she interrupted him. “I know only too well who likes me and who does not. If I only knew as well why you do not like me.”
“Well, that is too much! Because you are so ugly!” answered Tio Lucas.
“Listen! Ugly and the rest of it, I have a mind to climb the arbor and throw you down head first!”
“It is much more probable that I would not let you go down again without first swallowing you alive.”
“There we are now! And if by chance my admirers came and saw us, they might very likely say we were a couple of apes.”256
“And in saying so they would hit the nail on the head, for you are a real ape, and so handsome; and I look like an ape with my hump.”
“Which I like very much indeed.”
“Then the magistrate’s ought to please you better yet, because it is still larger than mine.”
“Well, well! Look here, Master Lucas, don’t be so jealous!”
“I jealous of the old fop? On the contrary, I am glad he is in love with you.”
“Because sin brings its own punishment. You will never love him, and meanwhile I am the real magistrate of the city.”
“Look at the vain fellow! But just suppose that I learn to love him. Stranger things have happened in this world.”
“That would be a matter of little concern to me.”
“Because in that case you would not be yourself any more, and not being what you are, or at least what I took you to be, I would not care a rap if you went wrong.”
“But what would you do in such a case?”
“I? Well, I must confess I don’t know, because I should then be a different person from what I am now, and cannot imagine what I might think then.”
“And why would you be a different person?”
“Because I am now a man who believes in you as he believes in himself, and whose whole life centers in this belief. Consequently, when I cease to believe in you I should either die or be transformed into another being, and live in a different manner from what I do now. It would seem to me as if I had just been born, and my sentiments 257 would undergo a change. I do not know what I should do with you then. Perhaps I should laugh, and turn my back upon you; perhaps I should not know you; perhaps — But look! what satisfaction are we likely to find in getting out of temper for nothing? What does it matter to us if all the magistrates in the world make love to you? Are you not my Frasquita?”
“Yes, you old barbarian,” answered Frasquita, laughing heartily. “I am your Frasquita, and you are the Lucas of my heart, uglier than a baboon, with more talent than any other man, better than bread, and whom I love more than — Well, you just come down from the arbor, and you will find out what that ‘I love” means. Come prepared to have your ears boxed, and to be pinched as often as you have hairs on your head!”
“GREAT heavens! What a woman!” cried the captain, and stamped with fury. “Not without reason have I been trembling and in fear of her from the first time I saw her! It must have been a warning of fate that I stopped playing Ecarté with her. It was also a bad omen that I passed so many sleepless nights. Was there ever mortal in a worse perplexity than I am? How can I leave her alone without a protector, loving her, as I do, more than my own life? And, on the other hand, how can I marry her, after all my declaimings against marriage?” Then, turning to Augustias — “What would they say of me in the club? What would people say of me, if they met me in the street with 258 a woman on my arm, or if they found me at home, just about to feed a child in swaddling-clothes? I — to have children? To worry about them? To live in eternal fear that they might fall sick or die? Augustias, believe me, as true as there is a God above us, I am absolutely unfit for it! I should behave in such a way that after a short while you would call upon Heaven either to be divorced or to become a widow. Listen to my advice: do not marry me, even if I ask you.”
“What a strange creature you are,” said the young woman, without allowing herself to be at all discomposed, and sitting very erect in her chair. “All that you are only telling to yourself! From what do you conclude that I wish to be married to you; that I would accept your offer, and that I should not prefer living by myself, even if I had to work day and night, as so many girls do who are orphans?”
“How do I come to that conclusion?” answered the captain with the greatest candor. “Because it cannot be otherwise. Because we love each other. Because we are drawn to each other. Because a man such as I, and a woman such as you, cannot live in any other way! Do you suppose I do not understand that? Don’t you suppose I have reflected on it before now? Do you think I am indifferent to your good name and reputation? I have spoken plainly in order to speak, in order to fly from my own conviction, in order to examine whether I can escape from this terrible dilemma which is robbing me of my sleep, and whether I can possibly find an expedient so that I need not marry you — to do which I shall finally be compelled, if you stand by your resolve to make your way alone!”
“Alone! Alone!” repeated Augustias roguishly. “And why not with a worthier companion? Who tells you that 259 I shall not some day meet a man whom I like, and who is not afraid to marry me?”
“Augustias! let us skip that!” growled the captain, his face turning scarlet.
“And why should we not talk about it?”
“Let us pass over that, and let me say, at the same time, that I will murder the man who dares to ask for your hand. But it is madness on my part to be angry without any reason. I am not so dull as not to see how we two stand. Shall I tell you? We love each other. Do not tell me I am mistaken! That would be lying. And here is the proof: if you did not love me, I, too, should not love you! Let us try to meet one another half-way. I ask for delay of ten years. When I shall have completed my half century, and when, a feeble old man, I shall have become familiar with the idea of slavery, then we will marry without any one knowing about it. We will leave Madrid, and go to the country, where we shall have no spectators, where there will be nobody to make fun of me. But until this happens, please take half of my income secretly, and without any human soul ever knowing anything about it. You continue to live here, and I remain in my house. We will see each other, but only in the presence of witnesses — for instance, in society. We will write to each other every day. So as not to endanger your good name, I will never pass through this street, and on Memorial Day only we will go to the cemetery together with Rosa.
Augustias could not but smile at the last proposal of the good captain, and her smile was not mocking, but contented and happy, as if some cherished hope had dawned in her heart, as if it were the first ray of the sun of happiness which was about to rise in her heaven! But being a woman — 260 though as brave and free from artifices as few of them — she yet managed to subdue the signs of joy rising within her. She acted as if she cherished not the slightest hope, and said with a distant coolness which is usually the special and genuine sign of chaste reserve:
“You make yourself ridiculous with your peculiar conditions. You stipulate for the gift of an engagement-ring, for which nobody has yet asked you.”
“I know still another way out — for a compromise, but that is really the last one. Do you fully understand, my young lady from Aragon? It is the last way out, which a man, also from Aragon, begs leave to explain to you.”
She turned her head and looked straight into his eyes, with an expression indescribably earnest, captivating, quiet, and full of expectation.
The captain had never seen her features so beautiful and expressive; at that moment she looked to him like a queen.
“Augustias,” said, or rather stammered, this brave soldier, who had been under fire a hundred times, and who had made such a deep impression on the young girl through his charging under a rain of bullets like a lion, “I have the honor to ask for you hand on one certain, essential, unchangeable condition. to-morrow morning — to-day — as soon as the papers are in order — as quickly as possible. I can live without you no longer!”
The glances of the young girl became milder, and she rewarded him for his decided heroism with a tender and bewitching smile.
“But I repeat that it is on one condition,” the bold warrior hastened to repeat, feeling that Augustias’s glances made him confused and weak.
“On what condition?” asked the young girl, turning fully 261 round, and now holding him under the witchery of her sparkling black eyes.
“On the condition,” he stammered, “that, in case we have children, we send them to the orphanage. I mean — on this point I will never yield. Well, do you consent? For Heaven’s sake, say yes!”
“Why should I not consent to it, Captain Veneno?” answered Augustias, with a peal of laughter. “You shall take them there yourself, or, better still, we both of us will take them there. and we will give them up without kissing them, or anything else! Don’t you think we shall take them there?” Thus spoke Augustias, and looked at the captain with exquisite joy in her eyes.
The good captain thought he would die of happiness; a flood of tears burst from his eyes; he folding the blushing girl in his arms, and said, “So I am lost?”
“Irretrievably lost, Captain Veneno,” answered Augustias. . . .
One morning in May, 1852 — that is, four years after the scene just described — a friend of mine, who told me this story, stopped his horse in front of a mansion on San Francisco Avenue, in Madrid; he threw the reins to his groom, and asked the long-coated footmen who met him at the door, “Is your master at home?”
“If your Honor will be good enough to walk up-stairs, he will find him in the library. His Excellency does not like to have visitors announced. Everybody can go up to him directly.”
“Fortunately I know the house thoroughly,” said the stranger to himself, while he mounted the stairs. “In the library! Well, well, who would have thought of Captain Veneno ever taking to the sciences?”262
Wandering through the rooms, the visitor met another servant, who repeated, “The master is in the library.” And at last he came to the door of the room in question, opened it quickly, and stood, almost turned to stone for astonishment, before the remarkable group which offered to his view.
In the middle of the room, on the carpet which covered the floor, a man was crawling on all-fours. On his back rode a little fellow about three years old, who was kicking the man’s sides with his heels. Another small boy, who might have been a year and a half old, stood in front of the man’s head, and had evidently been tumbling his hair. One hand held the father’s neckerchief, and the little fellow was tugging at it as if it had been a halter, shouting with delight in his merry child’s voice:
“Gee up, donkey! Gee up!”
OLD Gaffer Buscabeatas was already beginning to stoop at the time when the events occurred which I am going to relate; for he was now sixty years of age, and of these sixty years he had spent forty cultivating a garden bordering on the shore of La Costilla.
In the year in question he had cultivated in this garden some wonderful pumpkins, as large as the ornamental globes on the breastwork of some massive bridge, that at the time of our story were beginning to turn yellow, inside and out, which is the same as saying that it was the middle of June. Old Buscabeatas knew by heart the particular form and 263 the stage of maturity at which it had arrived of every one of these pumpkins, to each of which he had given a name, and especially of the forty largest and finest specimens, which were already crying out, “Cook me!” and he spent the days contemplating them affectionately, and saying in melancholy accents, “Soon we shall have to part!”
At last, one evening, he made up his mind to the sacrifice, and marking out the best fruits of those beloved vines which had cost him so many anxieties, he pronounced the dreadful sentence. “To-morrow,” he said, “I shall cut from their stalks these forty pumpkins and take them to the market at Cadiz. Happy the man who shall eat of them!”
And he returned to his home with slow step, and spent the night in such anguish as a father may be supposed to feel on the eve of his daughter’s wedding-day.
“What a pity to have to part from my dear pumpkins!” he would sigh from time to time in his restless vigil. But presently he would reason with himself, and end his reflections by saying, “And what else can I do but sell them? That is what I raised them for. The least they will bring me is fifteen pesos!”
Judge, then, what was his consternation, what his rage and despair, on going into the garden on the following morning, to find that during the night he had been robbed of his forty pumpkins! Not to weary the reader, I will only say that his emotion, like that of Shakespeare’s Jew, so admirably represented, it is said, by the actor Kemble, reached the sublimity of tragedy as he frantically cried:
“Oh, if I could only find the thief! If I could only find the thief!”
Poor old Buscabeatas presently began to reflect upon the matter with calmness, and comprehended that his beloved 264 treasures could not be in Rota, where it would be impossible to expose them for sale without risk of their being recognized, and where, besides, vegetables bring a very low price.
“I know, as well as if I saw them, that they are in Cadiz!” he ended. “The scoundrel! the villain! the thief must have stolen them between nine and ten o’clock last night, and got off with them at midnight on the freight-boat. I shall go to Cadiz this morning on the hour-boat, and it will surprise me greatly if I do not catch the thief there, and recover the children of my toil.”
After he had thus spoken, he remained for some twenty minutes longer on the scene of the catastrophe, whether to caress the mutilated vines, to calculate the number of pumpkins that were missing, or to formulate a declaration of the loss sustained, for a possible suit; then, at about eight o’clock, he bent his steps in the direction of the wharf.
The hour-boat was just going to sail. This was a modest coaster which leaves Cadiz every morning at nine o’clock precisely, carrying passengers, as the freight-boat leaves Cadiz every night at twelve, laden with fruits and vegetables.
The former is called the hour-boat because in that space of time, and occasionally even in forty minutes, if the wind is favorable, it makes the three leagues which separate the ancient village of the Duke of Arcos from the ancient city of Hercules.
It was, then, half past ten in the morning on the before-mentioned day when old Buscabeatas passed before a vegetable-stand in the market of Cadiz, and said to the bored policeman who was accompanying him:265
“Those are my squashes! Arrest that man!” and he pointed to the vendor.
“Arrest me!” cried the vender, astonished and enraged. “These squashes are mine; I bought them!”
“You will have to prove that before the judge!” answered old Buscabeatas.
“I say no!”
“I say yes!”
“Speak more civilly, you ill-mannered fellows! Decent men ought not to teat one another in that way!” said the policeman tranquilly, giving a blow with his closed fist to each of the disputants.
By this time a crowd had gathered, and there soon arrived also on the scene the inspector of public markets.
The policeman resigned his jurisdiction in the case to his Honor, and when this worthy official had learned al the circumstances relating to the affair, he said to the vender majestically:
“From whom did you purchase those squashes?”
“From Fulano, a native of Rota,” answered the person thus interrogated.
“It could be no one else!” cried old Buscabeatas. “He is just the one to do it! When his own garden, which is a very poor one, produces little, he takes to robbing the gardens of his neighbors!”
“But, admitting the supposition that forty pumpkins were stolen from you last night,” said the inspector, turning to the old gardener and proceeding with his examination, “how do you know that these are precisely your pumpkins?”
“How?” replied old Buscabeatas. “Because I know 266 them as well as you know your daughters, if you have any! Don’t you see that they have grown up under my care? Look here: this one is called Roly-Poly, this one Fat-Cheeks, this one Big-Belly, this one Ruddy-Face, this Manuela, because it reminded me of my youngest daughter.”
And the poor old man began to cry bitterly.
“That may be all very well,” replied the inspector; “but it is not enough for the law that you should recognize your pumpkins. It is necessary also that the authorities be convinced of the preexistence of the article in dispute, and that you identify it with incontrovertible prrofs. Gentlemen, there is no occasion for you to smile. I know the law!”
“You shall see, then, that I will very soon prove to the satisfaction of everybody present, without stirring from this spot, that these pumpkins have grown in my garden!” said old Buscabeatas, to the no little surprise of the spectators of this scene. And laying down on the ground a bundle which he had been carrying in his hand, he bent his knees until he sat upon his heels, and quietly began to untie the knotted corners of the handkerchief.
The curiosity of the inspector, the vender, and the chorus was now at its height.
“What is he going to take out of that handkerchief?” they said to themselves.
At this moment a new spectator joined the crowd, curious to see what was going on, whom the vender had no sooner perceived that he exclaimed:
“I am very glad that you have come, Fulano! This man declares that the squashes which you sold me last night, and which are now here present, listening to what we are saying about them, were stolen. Answer, you!”
The newcomer tuned as yellow as wax, and made a movement 267 as if to escape, but the bystanders detained him by force, and the inspector himself ordered him to remain. As for old Buscabeatas, he had already confronted the supposed thief, saying to him:
“Now you are going to see something god.”
Fulano, recovering his self-possession, answered.
“It is you who ought to see what you are talking about, for if you do not prove, as prove you cannot, your accusation, is hall have you put in prison for libel. These pumpkins were mine. I cultivated them, like all the others that I brought this year to Cadiz, in my garden, and no one can prove the contrary!
“Now you shall see!” repeated old Buscabeatas, loosening the knots of the handkerchief and spreading out its contents on the ground.
And there were scattered over the floor a number of fragments of pumpkin stalks, still fresh and dripping sap, while the old gardener, seated on his heels and unable to control his laughter, addressed the following discourse to the inspector and the wondering bystanders:
“Gentlemen, have any of you ever paid taxes? If you have, you must have seen the big green book of the collector, from which he tears off your receipt, leaving the stub or end, so as to be able to prove afterward whether the receipt is genuine or not.”
“The book you mean is called the account-book,” said the inspector gravely.
“Well, that is what I have here, the account-book of my garden — that is to say, the stalks to which these pumpkins were attached before they were stolen from me. And in proof of what I say, look here! This stalk belongs to this pumpkin; no one can doubt it. This other — you can see for 268 yourselves — belonged to this other. This is thicker — it must belong to this one. This to that one. This to that other.”
And as he spoke he went fitting a stub or peduncle to the hole which had been made in each pumpkin as it was pulled from the stalk, and the spectators saw with surprise that the irregular and capricious-shaped ends of the peduncles corresponded exactly with the whitish circles and the slight hollows presented by what we might call the cicatrices of the pumpkins.
Every one present, including the policeman, and even the inspector himself, then got down on their heels and began to help old Buscabeatas in his singular accountant’s work, crying out with childlike delight:
“He is right! He is right! There is not a doubt of it! Look! This belongs to this one. This to that one. That one there belongs to this. This belongs to that!” And the bursts of laughter of the grown people were mingled with the whistling of the boys, the abuse of the women, the tears of joy and triumph of the old gardener, and the shoves that the policeman gave to the convicted thief, as if they were all impatient to see him off to prison.
Needless to say that the policeman had that pleasure. Fulano was immediately compelled to restore to the vender the fifteen pesos he had received from him, the vender handed these over at once to old Buscabeatas, and the latter departed for Rota, highly delighted, although he kept repeating all the way home:
“How handsome they looked in the market! I should have brought Manuela back with me to eat for supper tonight, and save the seeds.”