THE stage was almost full. More chairs were brought from the actors’ dressing-rooms, the most aristocratic residents of Sarrio took their seats, and then ensued a consultation to decide who was to be the chairman of the meeting. In this there seemed to be some difficulty in coming to an agreement, and the public gave signs of impatience. The majority was of opinion that the honor of sitting behind the pine-wood table was due to Don Rosendo, but he declined it with a modesty much redounding to his credit. At last, however, he took the chair, as he saw the public was getting tired, and the applause was tremendous. Fresh and wearisome discussion ensued as to who was to open the meeting. Alvaro Peña, a man of impulse and action, finally took a few steps toward the curtain, and said in a loud voice.
“Sh! Sh! Silence!” cried several voices, and silence reigned.
“Gentlemen, the object of this meeting is no other, eh? then for us to unite in the support of the material and moral interests of Sarrio. Some days ago our most worthy president informed me that they were deteriorating, eh? and that it was necessary to support them at all cost. Gentlemen, there are many questions at issue in Sarrio at this critical time — the question of the covered market, the question of the cemetery, the question of the road to Rodillero, the question of the slaughter-house, and many others; and I said to my worthy friend, the only means of solving these problems 280 is to call a meeting at which all the Sarrienses can freely give their opinion.”
“What?” cried a sharp voice from the gallery.
Peña dared an angry look in the direction of the sound, and, as he was known to be a violent man, and had a great, fierce mustache, the fellow trembled in his skin, and did not venture to make a second ejaculation.
“My good friend, whose large heart and love of progress is known to all, said to me some time ago that he was of the same opinion, and that, moreover, he had a plan that he was anxious to lay before this illustrious assembly. Therefore we have called our friends of Sarrio to a public meeting, and here we are — because we have come.”
This collapse produced an excellent effect on the audience, who laughed good-naturedly.
“Gentlemen,” continued the captain, encouraged by the sound of merriment, “I believe that what this place requires is to be roused from its state of lethargy to the life of reason and progress, eh? to rise to the height of the progress of the century, to take stock of itself and its powers. Hitherto Sarrio has been a town under the sway of theocracy; plenty of midday services, sermons, and rosaries, and no thought of the advance of its interests and the knowledge of anything useful. We must get out of this state, eh? we must shake off the theocratic yoke. A place governed by priests is always a backward and a squalid place.” (Laughter and applause, mingled with hisses.)
The officer spoke better at the conclusion of his speech, and even acquired a certain self-assurance during his denunciation of priestcraft.
“May i be allowed to say a word?” cried a clear voice from a box.281
“Who is it? Who is it?” asked the audience and the dignitaries of the stage of one another.
“It is Perinolo’s son.”
“Perinolo’s son. Perinolo’s son.”
These words were repeated in a low tone all over the theater. . . .
“Who asked permission to speak?” queried Don Rosendo.
“Suarez — Sinforoso Suarez,” said the youth who had asked for the floor, bending over the rail.
“Then you have it, Señor Suarez.”
The young man coughed, ran the fingers of both hands through his hair, leaving it rougher and more tumbled than ever, put on his glasses that he wore hanging by a string, and said:
The quiet, impressive tone with which he said this word, the long pause that followed it, during which he fixed his glasses on his nose and looked at the audience in a superior way, inspired silence and attention.
“After the brilliant speech which has just been given us by Señor Peña, my respected friend, the illustrious harbor-master of this port” (the captain, who had never spoken to Suarez more than three times in his life, bowed graciously), “the assembly is quite convinced of the generous and patriotic feelings which prompted the promoters of this meeting. There is nothing so beautiful, nothing so grand, nothing so sublime as to see and town met together to discuss the dearest, highest interests of life. Ah, gentlemen, when listening just now to Señor Peña I imagined myself in the Agora of Athens, a free citizen, with other citizens, free as myself, discussing the destiny of my country; I imagined I heard the ardent, 282 eloquent words of one of those great orators who adorned the Hellenic State. Why, the eloquence of my dear friend, Señor Peña, was like the overwhelming passion that characterized Demosthenes, the prince of orators, and like the fluency and elegance that distinguished the discourses of Pericles. (Pause, with his hand to his glasses.) He was bright and animated, like Cleon; deliberate and temperate, like Aristides; his intonation was quiet and precise, like that of Esquines, and his voice was pleasant to the ear, like that of Isocrates. Ah, gentlemen, I, like the eloquent orator who has preceded me on the subject, desire that the place which gave me birth may awake to the life of progress, to the life of liberty and justice. Sarrio! What sweet recollections, what ineffable happiness does this single word awaken in my soul! Here were passed the days of my childhood. Here my mind began to form. Here love made my heart palpitate for the first time. Elsewhere my mind has been enriched by the knowledge of science, and the grand ideas engendered by the study of law; here my soul has been nourished by the sweet and holy feelings of the hearth. Elsewhere my intelligence has been sharpened by polemics, and the light of ideas; here my affections have been fostered by tender family love. Gentlemen, I will say it again, come what may, Sarrio is called to a great destiny! It has a right to be one of the first towns on the Biscayan coast, an emporium of activity and riches, by reason of the excellent position which Nature has given it, as well as the integrity, industry, and the great gift of intelligence of its inhabitants.”
(“Bravo! Bravo!” Unanimous and loud applause.)
The silence, caused more by surprise than any bad feeling, was now broken, and the “bravos” and applause continued without intermission. Never had the industrious, honest, 283 intelligent people of Sarrio heard any one speak so fluently and eloquently before.
“That discourse was a revelation of the modern parliamentary style!” So Alvaro Peña said when the meeting was over.
The speech continued half an hour longer, amid the increasing enthusiasm of the audience, when one of the notabilities on the platform thought that his throat must be dry, and that it was time to give him a glass of sugared water. The idea was communicated in an undertone to the president, who interrupted the orator with the remark:
“If Señor Suarez is fatigued, he can rest. I am going to have a glass of water sent him.”
These words were received with a murmur of approval.
“I am not tired, Señor President,” the orator replied gently.
(Yes, yes; rest. Make him rest. Let him have a glass of water. He will hurt himself. Let him have a few drops of anise.“)
The audience, suddenly inspired with tender sympathy, manifested quite a maternal solicitude for Perinolo’s son, who, inflated with delight, smiled on the audience and continued:
“Fatigue is fitting for valiant soldiers. Those who, like myself, are accustomed to the tribune (he had spoken a few times in the Academy of Jurisprudence in Lancia), do not easily become fatigued.
We must now say that Mechacar, a shoemaker, a neighbor, and a rival of many years’ standing of Señor José Maria Perinolo, who had known Sinforoso from his birth, and had often given him two or three beatings with the strap, when on his return from school he annoyed him by calling him by some contemptuous nickname, was in the gallery with 284 his hands resting on the rail, and his face, alert and attentive, on his hands. No enthusiasm shone in those eyes under the lowering brows, as in those of the others; but envy, hatred, and malice were visible on the countenance. When the honeyed words of his rival fell upon his ears he felt powerless to stand the farce, and he called out in a rage:
“Stop that rubbish, you fool!”
(Indescribable indignation of the audience. All eyes were turned to the gallery. Voices were heard saying:)
“Who is this brawler? To prison with him! Out with the fool!”
The president asked with terrible severity:
“Are we in a civilized town, or among Hottentots?”
The question thus formulated produced a profound impression upon the audience. Suarez, slightly pale, and in an agitated voice, finally said:
“If the meeting desire it, I am ready to sit down.”
(“No, no! Go on!” Loud and prolonged applause for the orator.)
The indignation against the rude disturber increased to such a degree that sounds of threats were audible, and several shook their fists in the direction whence the voice had proceeded. Alvaro Peña, the Greek orator, more indignant than anybody, finally went up to the gallery and put Mechacar out of the theater by force, amid the applause of the public.
The storm abated, the orator continued. He made a wide digression through the fields of history to prove that from the Roman conquest, when Spain was divided into citerior and ulterior Hispania, and afterward into Tarraco, Betica, and Lusitania, and so on down to the present day, the Sarrienses 285 had on all occasions given proof of a powerful intellect, very superior to that of the people of Nieva.
Such assertions were received with great signs of approval. Then suddenly passing into the region of law, he gently touched upon branches of knowledge that are not common, particularly in Sarrio — the science of Tribonianus and Papinianus.
On arriving at a certain point he said, with a modesty that did him credit:
“What I have just observed, señor, has no scientific value whatsoever. Every boy knows it who has made the acquaintance of the pandectas.
Don Jeronimo de la Fuente, a schoolmaster of the town who had studied the modern methods of pedagogics, and knew something of Froebel and Pestalozzi, a celebrated man who had written a primer on irregular verbs and kept a telescope at his window always turned toward the heavens, now rose from his seat and said:
“Corporal punishment has been stopped in the schools for some years.”
“I did not say palmetas [blows]: I said pan-dec-tas,” returned Suarez, smiling with some vexation.
Don Jeronimo was angry at having made such a mistake.
The orator continued, and finally resumed his seat, saying, like the eloquent officer who had preceded him, that Sarrio must awake to the life of progress; that it must arise from the lethargy in which it lay, and that she must take part in the struggle of ideas, which are always fruitful; and that she must let the radiant sum of civilization rise on her horizon.
“If it be true, as I have heard, that, thanks to the patriotic and generous initiative of a most worthy citizen of this town, that the Fourth Estate of modern powers is about to 286 celebrate its advent here; if, in fact, Sarrio will be presented with a periodical which will reflect her legitimate aspirations, let it be the palladium for the exercise of her intelligence, the promoter of her dearest interests, the advanced protector of her tranquillity and peace, the organ, in short, by which it may have communion with the spiritual world. Let us congratulate ourselves with all our hearts, and let us also congratulate the illustrious patrician whose efforts will bring to us a ray of this luminous star of the nineteenth century which is called the press.”
(“Bravo! Bravo!” All eyes are turned to the chairman. The face of Don Rosendo beams with dignity and delight.)
After the son of Perinolo came Don Jeronimo de la Fuente. The illustrious professor of the instruction of youth was very anxious to rise in the eyes of the public after his slip about the pandectas. He commenced by saying that he shared the opinions of the worthy orator (notice that he did not say eloquent, or illustrious, but worthy, nothing more) who had preceded him on the subject; that he, destined by his profession to light the torch of science in infantile brains, could not do less than be a devoted partizan of all modern enlightenment, more especially of that of the press. In corroboration of this statement he begged to say that as soon as a periodical in Sarrio was an established fact he would have the pleasure of laying before his fellow citizens the solution of a problem which until now was considered insoluble — that of the trisection of the angle — to which he had devoted much time and trouble, and which, fortunately, now was crowned with success. He spoke, moreover, with great emphasis on other matters — of physical geography and astronomy, clearly and briefly explaining the earth’s rotation and progression, the composition of air, the formation of the clouds and dew, 287 the origin of the salt of the sea, of springs and rivers, the scientific cause of tides, and also something about the cause of volcanoes. Afterward, just by the way, he passed on to an explanation of the celestial mechanism, and particularly the law of universal attraction, discovered by Newton, by which planets move round the sun in elliptic orbits. Then he explained with great brilliancy the nature of an ellipsis. Finally, speaking of our satellite, the moon, he remarked that the time of its revolution round the earth was sensibly diminishing, which indicated the decrease of its orbit. This, according to the orator, would sooner or later result in the moon falling into the earth, when both would be shattered. Don Jeronimo then resumed his seat, leaving the audience quite crushed under the weight of this alarming prophecy.
The proceedings went on until lamps were lighted. Don Rufo, the town doctor, a tall, lean man, with a pointed beard and gold eye-glasses, then got up and declared explicitly in a few words that thought was only a physiological function of the brain, and the soul an attribute of matter, and that the greater or less degree of intelligence in animals depends on the cerebral lobules and the weight of the brain. The orator computed that its weight in a man was three pounds and a half. Then he gave the calculation of the phosphoric matter that it contains. Man’s brain contains more phosphorus than animals’, while theirs have more than birds’. In children the quantity of phosphorus increases considerably at the natal hour, and it continues to increase rapidly with the course of time. But in what part of the brain is the spark of intellectual activity situated? asked the orator. In his opinion this activity has its mainspring in the grayish or bluish substance, and in some way in the whitish substance, which is the conductor of such activity. He then spoke of the 288 dura mater, the hemispheres of the brain, the frontal, parietal, and occipital parts of the skull, the function of the cerebrum, the seat of the cerebellum. Here the speaker conceived the happy Idea of making a beautiful comparison between the circumlocutions of this gray substance and a heap of intestines thrown promiscuously together. All the faculties which we call the soul are nothing but functions of this gray substance, of this mass of intestines. The brain secretes thoughts, as the liver does bile. The orator concluded by saying that while humanity is ignorant of these truths it cannot rise from its present state of barbarism.
Navarro, the veterinary professor, who never wished to be behind the doctor, then asked leave to speak, and after a few words of congratulation on the inauguration of the “meeting” (all speakers used the English term), he gave expression to a few very rational ideas on the gangrenous quinsy of the pig, and the treatment for its prevention. The orator hesitated, stuttered, and grew hot in the expression of his ideas, but this deficiency of language was compensated for by the novelty and interest of the subject, for numbers of these nice animals fell victims to quinsy at certain seasons in Sarrio.
In spite of the interest and respect with which the public listened to the discourse on the danger which threatened pig-farming, there were certainly signs of impatience to hear the president’s speech. After the allusion of Perinolo’s son to the fact of a journal, every one was anxious to have the news confirmed. While Navarro was talking a voice from the gallery cried:
“Let Don Rosendo speak!”
And although this rude interruption was rebuked with a 289 prompt “Sh!” it was evident that hey had had enough of Navarro.
At last the celebrated man of Sarrio, the standard-bearer of all progress, the illustrious patrician, Don Rosendo Belinchon’s majestic figure rose behind the table.
(“Silence! Sh! Sh! Silence, gentlemen! Attention! A little attention, please!”)
These were the cries that proceeded from the crowd, although nobody dared move a finger, such was the anxiety to hear the president’s remarks.
Like all men of a really superior mind and clear intelligence, Don Rosendo wrote better than he spoke. Nevertheless, his quiet mode of speech gave an impression of dignity that was wanting in the orators who had preceded him.
“Gentlemen (pause), I thank (pause) all the people (pause) who have assisted (pause) this afternoon (pause) at the meeting which I have had the honor to convene. (Much longer pause, rife with expectation.) I have a real pleasure (pause) in seeing gathered together in this place (pause) the most illustrious persons of the town (pause), and all those who, for one reason or another, are of consequence and importance.”
(“Bravo! Very good! Very good!”)
After this exordium, received in such a flattering style, the orator maintained that he was moved by the desire to raise the intellectual tone of Sarrio. Then he added that the object of this meeting had only been that of raising this tone. (Long applause.) He considered himself too weak and incompetent to accomplish the task. (“Yes, yes!” Applause.) But he counted on — at least he thought he could count on — the support of the many men of feeling, patriotism, intelligence, and progress dwelling in Sarrio. (Thunders of applause.)
The means that he considered most efficacious to raise Sarrio to its rightful height, and to make it compete worthily with other towns, and even maritime towns of more importance, was the creation of an organ that would support its political, moral, and material interests. “And, gentlemen, (pause), although all the difficulties are not yet overcome (pause), I have the pleasure of informing this illustrious assembly” (“Attention! Sh! Sh! Silence!”) “that perhaps in the ensuing month of August” (“Bravo! Bravo!” Loud and frantic applause that interrupted the orator for some minutes) “that perhaps in the ensuing month of August” (pause) “the town of Sarrio will have a biweekly paper.”