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  Leopoldo Alas

    translated by
  Leon Stephens

                       Original title:
                     Su único hijo (1891)

 2004, 2005 by G. L. Stephens

E    mma Valcárcel was a pampered only child. At the age of fifteen
     she fell in love with her lawyer father‟s scribe. Bonifacio Reyes, as
the scribe was named, belonged to a respected family, distinguished a
century earlier, but down on their luck for two or three generations.
Bonifacio was a peaceable man, placid, dilatory, very sentimental, very
tender-hearted, mad for music and fantastic stories, a good client of
the city‟s lending library. He was byronically handsome, of average
height, gracefully thin, with a pallid oval face, a lovely head of fine
chestnut-brown hair in ringlets, small feet, well-shaped legs; and he
dressed well, without affectation, in unassuming clothes not at all badly
cut. He was useless for any sort of serious, regular work; his writing
was beautiful, but he was a good while filling out a sheet of paper, and
his orthography was extremely capricious and fanciful; that is, it was
not orthography. He used capitals to begin the words he gave great im-
portance, such as: Love, Charity, Sweetness, Pardon, Epoch, Autumn,
Erudite, Gentle, Music, Sweetheart, Appetite and various others. The
same day that Emma‟s father, Don Diego Valcárcel, a famous lawyer
of noble lineage, decided to dismiss poor Reyes, because in short he did
not know how to write, and embarrassed him before the Municipal
and Provincial Courts, the girl decided to run away from home with
her sweetheart. Bonifacio, who had let himself be loved, tried in vain
not to let himself be stolen; Emma carried him off by force, the force
of love, and the Civil Guard, who were just beginning to be Worthy,
apprehended them in the first stage of their flight. Emma was locked
away in a convent, and the scribe disappeared from the city, a melan-
choly, boring, third-rate capital, so that nothing was heard of him for a
long time. Emma spent several years in her religious prison, and when
her father died, returned to the world as if nothing had happened; rich,
arrogant, in the charge of a guardian, her uncle, who was like a steward.
Convinced of her material purity, all her pride‟s desire was to prove she
was unsullied and force the rest of the world to have faith in her inno-
cence. She wanted to marry or die; marry to demonstrate the purity of
her honor. But acceptable suitors did not appear. In her imagination
the Valcárcel girl remained in love with the scribe of her fifteenth year;

                           LEOPOLDO ALAS

but she was unable to determine his whereabouts, nor even had he
come would she have offered him her hand, for that would have
meant ceding to slander. She wanted another husband first. Yes, that
was what she thought, without realizing what she was saying: -First
another husband.- The then that she vaguely hoped for, and half
glimpsed, was not adultery, it was…perhaps the death of her first
spouse, then a second wedding, which she believed to be her right. Her
first husband appeared when Emma had lived two years in freedom.
He was a returnee from America: not at all young, crude, sickly, taci-
turn, sanctimonious. He married Emma for selfish motives, for her
soft hands to care for him in his ailments. Emma made an excellent
nurse; she pictured herself transformed into a Sister of Charity. Her
husband lasted one year. The following year the Valcárcel woman took
off her mourning, and her uncle the guardian-steward and a host of
cousins, all Valcárcels, most of them secretly in love with Emma, took
on the occupation, in response to a ukase issued by the family tyrant, of
searching high and low for the fugitive, poor Bonifacio Reyes. He
turned up in Mexico, in Puebla. He had gone to seek his fortune; he
had not found it. He was living by badly administering a newspaper
that called everyone an incompetent fool. He was living poor and sad,
but silent, calm, resigned to his fate, or rather, unconscious of it. They
established communication with Bonifacio through an agent of a mer-
chant friend of the Valcárcels. How to bring him back? In what re-
spectable manner could they broach the question? He was offered a
position in a provincial town ten miles from the capital, a humble posi-
tion, but better than the administration of the Mexican newspaper.
Bonifacio accepted, came back to his homeland; he wanted to know
whom he owed such a favor, and was ushered into the presence of a
cousin of Emma‟s, formerly Reyes‟ rival. Emma and Bonifacio met the
next week and married three months later. At the end of ten days the
Valcárcel woman understood that this was not the Bonifacio of her
dreams. Though quite peaceable, he was more of a nuisance than her
guardian-steward, and less poetic than her cousin Sebastián, who had
loved her hopelessly from the age of twenty to maturity.
   After two months of marriage Emma felt the awakening of an in-
tense, overwhelming devotion to all those of her clan, living or dead;
she surrounded herself with relatives, spent a small fortune to restore a
heap of old paintings, portraits of her ancestors; and without telling
anyone, thereon fell in love, secretly and also hopelessly, with the re-
nowned Don Antonio Diego Valcárcel Merás, founder of the house of
Valcárcel, a famous warrior who commanded and countermanded in

                              LEOPOLDO ALAS

the War of the Alpujarras. Armored head to toe, wizened and bushy-
browed, with a penetrating stare and glittering like a sun, thanks to a
recent coat of varnish, the mysterious character on the canvas figured
in Emma‟s mooning eyes as the ideal specimen of long lost, irreplace-
able greatness. Being in love with her forefather, who symbolized the
entire chivalric life that she imagined in her fashion, was a worthy pas-
sion in a woman who spent all her efforts setting herself apart from
other women. This zeal to distance herself from current trends, break
all the rules, defy gossip, carry off the impossible and provoke scan-
dals was not, in her, an abstract display, the pedantic vanity of a wo-
man unhinged by disordered reading; it was a spontaneous perversion
of the spirit, a neurotic itch. Her cousin Sebastián lost a lot of ground
when the collection of family icons was restored. If Emma had been
until then a hair‟s breadth from the abyss, which we do not know, her
secret and utterly ideal passion rescued her from all material danger;
between Sebastián and his cousin a scrap of old canvas had been inter-
posed. One evening at twilight they were walking together through the
portrait gallery, and as Sebastián was preparing a statement that would
reveal in few words the great virtues he had acquired by loving for so
many years without saying a word, or hoping for anything in return,
Emma, stepping in front of him, ordered him to light a lamp and bring
it close to the portrait of their illustrious forefather. “Yes, you do look
somewhat alike,” she said; “but it‟s perfectly obvious that our line has
degenerated. He was much more handsome and robust than you.
Nowadays the Valcárcel men are all milksops; if they loaded all that
armor on you, wouldn‟t you look funny.”
   Sebastián went on loving secretly and hopelessly. The warrior of the
Alpujarras kept perpetual vigil over the honor of his clan.
   Bonifacio suspected nothing, either of her cousin or her forefather.
As soon as his wife declared an end to the honeymoon, which was
soon indeed, finding he lacked activities, because her steward uncle
continued to manage everything at Emma‟s express command, he went
in search of an existence to love, something that would fill his life. It is note-
worthy that Bonifacio, a simple man in language and manners, cold in
appearance, obscure and prosaic in gesture, action and word despite
his soft handsomeness, on the inside, as he told himself, was a dreamer, a
drowsy dreamer, and when talking to himself he used a lofty, senti-
mental style, which even he was unaware of. Searching, then, for some-
thing to fill his life, he found a flute. It was an ebony flute with silver
keys, which turned up among his father-in-law‟s papers. The lawyer of
the illustrious College, when alone, was also a romantic, though some-

                            LEOPOLDO ALAS

what old, who played the flute with considerable feeling, but never in
public. Emma, after giving it thought, had no objection to her father‟s
flute passing to the hands of her husband. Who, after oiling it well and
making it like new by virtue of certain repairs, dedicated himself, body
and soul, to music, his favorite hobby. He displayed more than average
aptitude, a middling embouchure, and above all, considerable feeling.
The sweetish, we might say nasal, monotonous, docile timbre of the
melancholy instrument, which smelled of almond oil like the musi-
cian‟s head, was in harmony with Bonifacio Reyes‟ character; even the
inclination of the head to which performance obliged him, an inclina-
tion that Reyes exaggerated, imbued him with a certain resemblance to
a simpleton. Reyes, playing the flute, brought to mind a musical saint
of a pre-Raphaelite painter. Now and then the tip of his clean, healthy
tongue could be seen over the black hole, through his silky, chestnut-
brown mustache; his large, gentle, light-blue eyes rolled up in their
sockets like the eyes of a mystic; but for all that, they did not look to
heaven, but at the wall opposite, for Reyes held his head lowered as if
about to charge. He would keep the rhythm with the toes of one foot,
smacking the floor, and in the most expressive passages, with gentle
undulations of his whole body, his waist acting as the pivot. In the alle-
gros he shook with power and vivacity, strange in a man apparently so
apathetic; his eyes, previously lifeless and attentive to nothing but the
score, as if they were an integral part of the flute or were attached to it
by a hidden spring, became infused with life and took on fire and bril-
liance, and exhibited unspeakable sorrows, like an intelligent animal
calling for help. In such seizures Bonifacio looked like a shipwrecked
sailor drowning and clutching at straws; Reyes believed that the strain
in his facial muscles, the red that inflamed his cheeks and the yearning
in his eyes would express the intensity of his inspiration, his immense
love of the melody; but they more resembled signs of an irreversible
asphyxia; they made one think of apoplexy, or any sort of terrible phy-
sical crisis, but not the winsome heart of a melomaniac, simple as a
   In order not to annoy anyone, or spend his wife‟s money (since he
had none of his own) buying sheet music, he borrowed polkas and
whole scores of Italian operas, which were his passion, and copied out,
himself, all those torrents of harmony and melody represented by the be-
loved signs of the stave. Emma did not ask him to account for these
enthusiasms or for the time they kept him occupied, which was the
better part of the day. She only required that he always be dressed, and
well dressed, at the hours designated for taking a walk or going visiting.

                           LEOPOLDO ALAS

Her Bonifacio was nothing more than her ornament; inwardly he was a
vacuum, a blockhead; but his figure was presentable, and could arouse
envy in many town matrons. She dressed up her husband, whom she
bought good clothes, which he wore well, and reserved the right to
regard him as a mooncalf. In the early stages he seemed happy with his
lot. He did not poke his nose into family business; he spent no more
than a poor student on personal embellishment, since the matter of his
luxurious clothes was not, strictly speaking, his own expense, but
stemmed from his wife‟s vanity; he enjoyed looking good, but could
have dispensed with that sartorial luxury with no misgivings; besides,
he thought it an idle, useless expense, sending to Madrid for his trou-
sers and frock-coats, an excess of dandyism, something then unheard of
in the city. He knew a modest tailor, also a flautist, who for little mo-
ney was capable of fitting a suit no worse than the depraved artistes of
the court. He thought this, but did not say it. He let himself be dressed.
He was determined to exert the least possible pressure on the house of
Valcárcel, and hold his tongue on all questions.


E     mma was the head of the family; she was besides, as we have
      seen, its tyrant. Uncles and aunts, cousins, nieces and nephews
bowed to her orders, respected her whims. This spiritual domination
could not be entirely explained by economic motives, but doubtless
they had a strong bearing. All the Valcárcels were poor. The family‟s
fecundity was notorious in the province; the Valcárcel women were
always giving birth, and those the men brought into the family by
lawful matrimony were every bit their equals. Procreate abundantly and
give no thought to work: this seemed to be the slogan of that clan.
Among all the Valcárcels, in the entire century there had not been a
more industrious man than Emma‟s father, the lawyer, who had also
been less prolific in his marriage than his relatives. We have already
noted that she was an only child, and therefore sole heir of that
romantic flautist lawyer. But the astute jurisconsult‟s acquisitions were
handed down to his daughter somewhat diminished. Don Diego
Valcárcel‟s chastity, it would appear, was not so extreme as had been
believed; his real virtue had always consisted of prudence and
discretion; he knew that bad example and scandal are the most
formidable enemies of well-organized societies, and he, seeing it was
impossible to carry on in chaste widowhood, between seducing the
household servant girls and his daughter‟s governesses, and possibly,
since temptation whispered in his ear on various occasions, his
respectable clients, unprotected ladies who came to his office in search
of juridico-moral guidance, as he put it: between that and regulating
the vice, the inevitable expansions of our weak flesh, he opted for the
second, organizing Aphrodite‟s services, as he also said, with sensible
distribution and highly prudent secrecy. And out beyond the city, in
the neighboring villages where the concerns of his own property and
others‟ affairs often brought him, he became, let the truth be known,
the irresponsible Abraham – Pater Orchamus – of a small town‟s worth
of illegitimate children, many in adultery. Neither his conscience nor
that of the priest who confessed him, who while alive had at times
helped him avoid a scandal, nor certain threats of embarrassing con-
fessions delivered by various sinning women, allowed him, at the ra-

                             LEOPOLDO ALAS

ther awkward hour of making a will, to leave certain obligations of
blood entirely forgotten; and within his means, maintaining the appro-
priate formal pretenses, he left bequests here and there, which reduced
Emma‟s inheritance to the extent the law allowed. Nor was that the
worst, rather, after consultation with that same spiritual adviser, Don
Diego had previously made a series of surreptitious transfers inter vivos,
which were forced on him, much against his will, by fear of scandal, his
great virtue, as we have seen. In short, Emma found herself with sig-
nificantly less wealth than her father, although she scarcely got wind of
it, if at all, for paperwork gave her migraine, numbers gave her synco-
pe, and court clerks‟ script made her feel ill. “Uncle will handle it,” she
always said when it was a question of finances. She understood only
what it was to spend. Don Juan Nepomuceno, formerly Emma‟s guar-
dian and now her steward, would certainly have liked to drive off all
the flies that were buzzing, in the form of relatives, around the dimi-
nished honeycomb of the inheritance; but this was impossible: the pro-
found affection his niece had conceived for all past, present and future
Valcárcels required that she extend the most generous hospitality to all
her kin. Don Juan had to be content with the exclusive administration
of that pagan prodigality, but his influence could not manage to curb
her extravagance, nor even induce the orientation of his former ward‟s
excessive generosity to his sole benefit.
   Emma, who had a miscarriage, recovered from a near-fatal crisis
crippled in her organs, with her stomach very weak, lost weight and
had to hide premature wrinkles. But she could not conceal a cold, si-
nister brilliance in her eyes, odious like nothing else; the mysterious flash-
ing of those eyes, which various relations of the ailing, nervous, iras-
cible woman had serenaded to the sound of a guitar, had transformed
into that brilliance and the repellent expression which accompanied it.
Emma made her court of those relatives, most of them long in love
with her, each according to his temperament; despised her husband,
whom she only esteemed physically, more each day, and felt an ever
more intense attachment to her own family.
   Reyes fully understood that he was being converted, through no fault
of his own, into his in-laws‟ enemy, a vanquished and humiliated ene-
my thanks to his wife, who delivered him defenseless, tied hand and
foot, to any and all relatives who cared to make him their whipping
   The Valcárcels, natives of the mountains, had come down to the
villages in the valleys and plains to procure a more affluent, easier life,
and for lack of other means, resorted to the expedient of arranging

                            LEOPOLDO ALAS

marriages of opportunity, seducing the town money-bags with titles
and coats-of-arms carved in stone, there on their rambling houses on
the twisting paths, and the tender maidens with the fine figures of ar-
rogant vigor and gentlemanly charm that abounded in the family. Al-
most all the Valcárcels were good lads, though nothing like their heroic
ancestor; svelte, but slow of speech, with harsh scowls, grating voices,
gloomy manners, and undisguisedly haughty; they were also distin-
guished by their exaggerated fondness for cloaks, use of which was
dispensed with for most of the year in the mild, humid dumps below,
where they always went in search of brides. Some of them, without dis-
carding the cloak, audaciously extended their poor gentlemen‟s excur-
sions to the very gates of the provincial capital, and at last Don Diego,
Emma‟s father, unquestionably the greatest genius of the family for a
century, entered the city fearlessly as an enterprising, madcap student,
and when he came of age and received his degree, changed character
overnight, became staunch as a post, set up shop, monopolized the cli-
entèle of the mountains, adulated the gentry of the territorial Court,
serious magistrates as well and lovers of the most exquisite turns of
phrase; made a good marriage, left poverty behind, shone in the court-
room with acute brilliance, and, without prejudice to his hidden ro-
mantic nature, nor even to his writing verses in the bosom of the home
and providing a safety valve for the steam of sentimentality in the keys
of his flute, which he blew into with tears in his eyes, was with all that
the most unyielding zealot of the letter, and enemy of the spirit and all
bold and irreverent interpretation of the sacrosanct law. And it is not
related that even once the Court had to address him with the paltriest
reprimand; nor did the elegance of his courtroom language elicit from
the magistracy anything but praise, Don Diego, let the truth be known,
having begun to fall, on this point, into a certain affectation, excusable
to be sure, for by means of it he insured that his eloquence should, like
the ermine, emerge unsoiled from the turbid waters of private putrefaction
to which on occasion he was dragged by tribunal necessity. Once,
much to his chagrin, he had to prosecute a despicable priest for offens-
es against decency; and if indeed he attempted in his heart to be strong,
terrible, implacable, there was no way for his tongue to make use of
hard, nor yet forceful, nor even picturesque epithets, generating the
greatest heat of the attack in calling his opponent “the ill-counseled
presbetery, if it be permitted to so qualify him. Ill-counseled,” said
Don Diego then, explaining the adjective: “that is, I suppose the pres-
betery would not have fallen into such lewdness without someone‟s
counsel, most likely the devil‟s.” In all his forensic discourses Valcárcel

                            LEOPOLDO ALAS

the lawyer had to struggle against the crass and altogether unceremo-
nious language of his region, which even in the courtroom tried to
impose itself upon him; but he, triumphant, knew how to find edu-
cated equivalents of the coarsest, most vulgar terms; thus on one occa-
sion, forced to speak of the posts of a granary or grain-bin, which in
that part of the country were called jacks, before he would stain his lips
with such scurrility, he preferred to say “the pedal extremities of the ar-
tefact, Your Honor.”
   To these qualities, which had won him the sympathies and respect of
all the magistracy, the in no wise contemptible squire added a most
felicitous memory for the recall of dates with infallible exactitude, and
so there were more numbers in his cerebrum than in a table of loga-
   The name of the Valcárcels attained, yes attained, thanks to Don
Diego, to a degree of splendor it had not possessed since the remote
centuries when it shone in deeds of arms. The illustrious jurisconsult
had earned honor and profit, and his relatives longed to enjoy both
such advantages, for due to the fecundity of their wives and relations
they were dissipating into a pitiable proletariat which threatened to fill
the world with Valcárcels. There were no marriages of advancement
that would suffice, with that extravagant reproductive faculty, to rescue
the family from the all too rational fear of ending up in poverty. That
expansive movement in search of prosperity, which had announced it-
self in the direction of the vendamont, descending from the mountains
to the valley, now made itself known again by a proportional reaction
in the direction of the vendaval, driving the numerous offspring of the
Valcárcels, multiplied without rhyme or reason, back to the mountains,
back to the rambling houses on the twisting paths, incapable of work-
ing; for we cannot, at least in the economic sense, properly describe as
work the thousand hardships endured around the gaming tables by
Emma‟s relatives, almost all gamblers, and many of them addicts of
their passion, which broke out in the form of aneurism. Once Don
Diego was dead, the Valcárcels lost their only support, and the tenden-
cy of retreat to the mountains gathered momentum throughout the fa-
mily. When they descended to the plain, they came down ever haugh-
tier and more unsociable; their hatred of courtesy, the complicated for-
mulas of respectable provincial society, grew sharper. The poorer they
became, the more clannish vanity they acquired, and the more they
scorned the life of town and flatland. At the riverside, as those above
called the lower region, the highland Valcárcels recognized only one

                             LEOPOLDO ALAS

thing worthy of respect: the gaming table. They went to the fairs to
play, lose, become indebted…and go back home.
   Beating the path of retreat, that tribe returned in hordes; it was the
atavism of an entire lineage. For some while Emma‟s exalted spirit kept
that alarming tendency largely in check. The gentilic affection that
awoke in her with such exorbitant vehemence served to reconcile
many of her relations with civilization and the lowlands. Their visits to
the capital became more frequent, perhaps because they were cheaper
and more comfortable. Word spread, that the home of the famous and
now deceased lawyer Don Diego Valcárcel was, as he would have put
it were he still living, a xenodochia, xenones, that is, in Christian speech, a
travelers‟ hostel. Emma, who had formerly, and not without coquetry,
disdained the adoration of those cousins and uncles – since she also
had impassioned uncles – now, that is, since she had lost the flower of
her beauty, above all her youthful freshness, as a result of her miscar-
riage, took pleasure in remembering those long gone amorous tri-
umphs, then scorned, and enjoyed calling up the delicious sensations
of that past adoration. She surrounded herself in voluptuous delight, as
if in a tepid, perfumed atmosphere, with the presence of those Valcár-
cels who would once have thrown themselves head first into the river
to enjoy one of her smiles.
   In most of them that love must necessarily have passed away, lest it
become ridiculous; the years and the fat and the deadly prosaic exist-
ence of poverty and coarseness up there had robbed any attempt at
amorous fidelity of all credible character; but it was no matter: Emma
was content to see beside her those who still remembered dead love
with respect and affection, and dedicated all the attentions compatible
with the surly, brusque nature of mountain men to the object of such a
cult. Those courtiers of antiquated love, in rendering their homage,
were perhaps thinking above all of the present liberality of Don Die-
go‟s heir, the only member of the family who still had four walls to call
her own; but she, unhappy Bonifacio‟s capricious yoke-mate, did not
pause to examine the secret motives for the acceptance of her unques-
tionable sovereignty over her kin. Very likely none of those relatives
saw in their cousin the beauty which in fact had flown; but some pre-
tended, with great delicacy in the imposture, to keep a flame hidden in
their hearts, under the ashes that duty and the constraints of custom
had heaped upon it. Emma also took pleasure in this, without clearly
realizing it, vaguely believing in it; she savored that holocaust of unre-
quited love with the uncertainty of distant music still sounding, who
knows if in hearing or imagination. This was what had become family

                             LEOPOLDO ALAS

dogma, with its invariable formula: for Emma the days did not pass;
this stomach business was nothing; after giving birth in an unfortunate
way, she was fresher and more vigorous than ever. No one believed
any such thing, for it was plain to see that it was not so, but everyone
attested to it. The courtesans of that capricious sultana with her vio-
lent, changeable character took revenge for their inescapable humilia-
tion by despising Bonifacio Reyes without disguising it in the least.
Emma came to feel an affection for her husband somehow analogous
to that which his senator horse must have aroused in the Roman Em-
peror. Another family dogma, this one secret, was that “the girl had
made the bed of her misfortunes by mating with that man”. Cousin Se-
bastián confessed, sighing, that the single act of his life he still regretted
(and he was a man who had staked his maternal legacy on a single card)
went back to the period of his mad passion for Emma, a passion which
had caused him to fall into the weakness of consenting to search out,
find, employ, and deliver into marriage Don Diego‟s stupid scribe. He
would never pardon himself such weakness, such blindness of passion.
And Sebastián would sigh, and the other relatives would sigh, and Em-
ma would also sigh at times, in her melancholy indulging in that affec-
tation of the resigned victim who suffers the disastrous consequences
of youthful madness for the rest of her life.


F    or a long time her good husband gave no thought to such insults.
     In the depth of his soul, and despite the elegant suits of English
worsted he was made to wear, he still regarded himself as the former
scribe of Don Diego, whose good favor he had repaid with blackest
  For him all the Valcárcels were the masters. In vain, then in those now
distant, fleeting days of that honeymoon which Emma had ordained
should be so brief, in vain had the love-sick bride exhorted him to
more dignified, firm relations with her cousins and uncles; he, Bonifa-
cio, could not help always esteeming them greatly superior to himself
by blood, the privileges of birth he confusedly believed in. Don Juan
Nepomuceno terrified him with his broad, ash-gray mutton-chops, his
cold, milk-chocolate eyes and his double chin, shaven with pharisaical
care; he terrified him most of all with his mystifying financial accounts,
which he regarded as the essence of wisdom. Whenever Don Juan gave
his giddy niece a brief report of the household extravagances, he insist-
ed that Bonifacio be present; it was no use Emma, and Reyes himself,
trying to avoid this ceremony. “By no means!” her uncle would ex-
claim; “I want you both to bear witness to everything, so that he (Boni-
facio) won‟t claim one day that I‟ve ruined you through ineptitude, or
something worse.” The everything that he was forced to bear witness to
was nothing; within it, nothing could be clearly seen, and though it
could, Reyes would not have seen it, for he did not even look. If it was
a bothersome, irritating scene for Emma to attend her uncle‟s ac-
counts, without listening, without grasping more than that “the matter
was going very badly”, for her husband it was unbearable torture. In-
stead of thinking about the numbers, he thought about what the family
administrator‟s eyes meant. In his opinion they meant to say, „Who are
you to demand accounts of me, to audit my administration? How did
you end up in this family, you miserable plebeian?‟ -Yes, plebeian,
thought the unhappy wretch; for if he knew well, though he was in the
dark about the details, that his ancestors had been of good family, he had
almost forgotten it, and was aware that no one else, especially the Val-
cárcels, would want to remember, or quite believe, any such thing.

                           LEOPOLDO ALAS

  The disgust those useless meetings inspired in him became so strong
that for the first time in his life he resolved to enforce his own will in
something, and stood his ground, as he said, refusing to witness that un-
bearable scene any longer. To his great surprise and greater pleasure,
he brought off his victory with little resistance on her uncle‟s part. As
for Emma, she did not much insist on contradicting her husband‟s
wish either, for it occurred to her that after his liberation hers would
come. In fact, three months after having dispensed with Bonifacio‟s
presence, she managed to have her own dispensed with as well. And
her uncle, with no one other than his niece knowing it, ceased to ren-
der accounts of earnings and expenditures to any living soul. Both of
them signed what they had to sign, without reading an item or a figure,
and not a word was spoken of the matter.
  Two worries then descended on Bonifacio‟s shrunken soul: one was
a great sadness, the other a constant annoyance. Both had been born
of his wife‟s miscarriage. The sadness expressed his disappointment in
not having a child; the incessant, penetrating, prevailing annoyance
arose from his wife‟s ailments. Emma had lost her belly, and Bonifacio
his peace of mind, his muse. The capricious, fickle character of Don
Diego‟s daughter took on predictable attitudes, an invariability of ele-
ments which till then had been sought in vain; now that spirit was no
longer changeable, that domineering, though insecure will did not va-
cillate endlessly among a hundred whims. With unusual seriousness
Emma decided to be an unbearable woman, the bane of her husband,
for the rest of her life. If for the world at large she became dry and
surly, she reserved the flower of her wrath for the intimacy of the bed-
room. She plagued her husband as if she were fulfilling a judgement
from On High. There was a quality of religious zeal in that dogged
persecution. All her misfortunes, that loss of weight and figure, those
wrinkles, that prominence of the cheekbones, which horrified her by
reminding her of the skull which lay beneath her pallid, blemished
hide, that persistent loss of appetite, those sleepless nights, spells of
nausea, terrifying irregularities in the periodic phenomena of her sex,
were so many more crimes that must torment miserable Bonifacio‟s
conscience with fierce remorse. Did he not see that? No. His imagi-
nation did not reach so far as his wife desired. He only admitted that
he had been an ingrate to Don Diego, letting his daughter make off
with him. The blame for all the rest was not his, it lay with Emma, or
the devil, who took delight in denying him children, and his wife the
necessary conditions for being like other women. As soon as they were
alone in the sick woman‟s room, she would slam the door histrionic-

                           LEOPOLDO ALAS

ally, and at once her shrill, strident voice could be heard expending the
little strength her anemic condition left her in a fury of complaint
whose eloquence and verbosity cannot be doubted. The dispute, if we
can give such a name to those convulsions, would usually begin with a
medical consultation.
   “This is what‟s happening to me,” she would say, describing her inti-
mate irregularities; “what do you think it is? What should I do? Shall I
continue taking this medicine, or shall I stop?”
   Bonifacio would go pale, his saliva turned to glue… What did he
know? He sympathized with his wife (much less, of course, than with
himself), but did not and could not know what was advisable for her;
moreover, he did not even have a clear idea of the ailments she was
complaining of; he felt sure they were rather serious, and were the ba-
sis of his own desperation, because they excluded him from all hope of
being a father, having legitimate children; but what could he say about
medicines and prognoses? Nothing; and he would begin trembling,
thinking of the obscure pathological problems she was talking about,
and, anticipating the storm that was brewing, would plead ignorance of
the case.
   “My dear, I really can‟t say…I don‟t understand…we‟ll call the doc-
tor – ”
   “That‟s right, the doctor! The doctor, for these things! Since you
have no sense of decency, at least allow me to. These are intimate mat-
ters of matrimony: we should only have recourse to the doctor in the
most extreme complications… You should know, you should make
some effort to determine what‟s appropriate; if not for the sake of af-
fection, for decency‟s sake, for shame; and if you have no shame, for
remorse, for…”
   As we have indicated, Emma‟s verbosity, when such moments came,
knew no bounds.
   One day, when she took it into her head that she was suffering an
inflammation of the liver…in the spleen…she went looking for her
husband and found him in his room, playing the flute. Her indignation
found no words; there no eloquence was possible, except that of si-
lence…and the facts. She dying of a liver attack, and he…playing the
flute! That deserved witnesses, and she had them. Don Juan Nepomu-
ceno, Sebastián and two other cousins hurried to Emma at her sum-
mons. Indignation spread among all those present. The offense was
blatant: the flute was there, on the table, and Emma‟s liver – in its
place, but in a state of collapse. Bonifacio, who in spite of everything
loved his wife more than all her uncles and cousins, forgetting his own

                           LEOPOLDO ALAS

crime, asked to be informed of the illness the victim was suffering; at
last, after extended inquiry, Emma, stretched out on the sofa and sup-
pressing her sobs, pointed to the area of the spleen on her left side.
   “But darling…” he dared to say, “now that…that‟s not the liver. The
liver is on the other side.”
   “You fool!” shouted his wife. “Do you dare still speak to me? Don‟t
you always say you aren‟t a doctor? That you don‟t understand all that?
And now to contradict me…”
   Don Juan Nepomuceno, lover of all truth, at least not of an arithme-
tical order, in which he preferred the musings of fantasy, declared with
his hand on his conscience that on this occasion – “rara avis!” (he said)
– Bonifacio had reason in his camp; that in fact the liver is on the other
   “That doesn‟t matter,” said Sebastián; “it could be a reflected pain.”
   “And what is that?”
   “I don‟t know, but I‟m assured, it does exist.”
   It was nothing of the sort; it was a mild shifting rheumatic pain; a
few moments later Emma felt it in her back. It turned out, in the end,
to be nothing; but one thing would always be true: Bonifacio was play-
ing the flute at the instant his wife thought herself at the gates of the
   They did not sleep together, but in widely separated rooms; and it
was the husband‟s duty, as soon as he rose, which was not late, to rush
to his wife‟s bedroom and care for her, prepare everything for her,
because the servant‟s hands were obdurately clumsy; and in this matter
Emma did Bonifacio the justice of acknowledging his fine skill and
sensitive fingers. He broke a good deal of crockery and crystal, and it
cost him some serious reprimands; but he had the gifts of a nurse and
a valet. And she also willingly acknowledged, thinking at times of past
illusions, that in spite of being adroit at those tasks, her husband was
not effeminate in either appearance or gesture; he was gentle, some-
what feline, unctuous one might say, but all in manly form. That sub-
mission to all the intimate duties of the bedroom, all the complications
of the sick woman‟s whims, the sad, tender voluptuousness of conva-
lescence, appeared in Bonifacio, as far as the material aspect was con-
cerned, not as the natural aptitudes of a pious hermaphrodite or apron-
man, but as the romantic exaggerations of a quixotic love, focused on
the details of conjugal intimacy.
   Emma still felt proud of the physique of her Bonis, as she called
Reyes; and seeing him going about the bedroom, always with a plea-
sant, noble bearing in spite of the humble offices that employed him

                            LEOPOLDO ALAS

there, she experienced the inward joy of satisfied vanity. But before she
would betray such feelings, she would have been torn to pieces, and
the more handsome he was, the more slavish she liked to see Don
Diego‟s miserable scribe; the more humiliated, the more elegant in his
humiliation. Upbraiding Bonifacio became her only consolation; she
could not dispense with either his attentions or repaying him in scold-
ings and bad manners. What doubt could there be that her Bonis had
been born to endure her and care for her?
  Emma spent her few periods of relative good humor cultivating the
remains of her past coquetries; she still tried to appear attractive to the
relatives she had once disdained; a bit of purely fantastic, intricate,
morbid romanticism was all that revealed, in the company of the Val-
cárcels, and only then, the existence of a spirit within that lean, pallid,
wrinkled creature: the rest of the time, almost all day, she resembled a
rabid animal with the instinct to go and take a bite, always in the same
place, out of her gentle spouse‟s intimidated, phlegmatic soul.
  Bonifacio was not a coward; but he loved peace above all; what tor-
mented him most in his wife‟s unjust bilious-nervous discourses was
the noise.
  -If she would tell me all that in writing, as Don Diego did when he
was insulting the opposing party or his inferior, on official paper, I‟d
sign it myself without complaint.- The shouting, the wailing, that was
what cut him to the quick, not the concepts, as he said.
  There were periods when, after the ordinary services of the sick-
room, for which her husband was irreplaceable, Emma would declare
that she could no longer bear the sight of him, and the greatest favor
he could do her was to leave and not return until the time of this or
that duty of Bonifacio‟s exclusive province. Then he saw the heavens
open as he flew out the door to the street.


H      e would go to a store. He participated in three or four favorite
       discussion groups around as many counters. He divided his time
among the pharmacy in the main square, the New Bookstore, which
lent books for a fee, and the fabrics outlet in the Arcade, which be-
longed to Cascos‟ widow. It was in this last establishment where his
spirit found its most effective consolation; a genuine balsam in the
form of indolent silence and tender memories. The Cascos shop had
been the scene of all the provincial romanticism in the forties. Let us
note that in Bonifacio‟s town, as in many others of its sort, roman-
ticism was taken to mean reading a lot of novels, of whatever variety,
reciting verses by Zorrilla and the Duke of Rivas, Larrañaga and Don
Heriberto García de Quevedo (if I am not mistaken), and producing
The Troubador and The Page, Zoraida, and other dramas in which the
Moor would enter possessed by a tearful lyricism, delivered in hende-
casyllables of the most lachrymose nature:

       Is it true, Almanzor, that my tender arms
       Once again embrace thee? Oh heaven be praised! (etc.),

Bonifacio would say, and all those of his time would say with viscous,
endearing euphony, something like a lullaby. And they would also say,
with greater energy:

       Boabdil, Boabdil, awake, leave thy downy bed... etc.

  This was the best and healthiest part of what was understood as ro-
manticism. Its complement was a matter of applying to daily life
something of what one was reading, and above all, having strong pas-
sions, capable of carrying out the most prodigious plans. All those pas-
sions resolved into a single one, love; for the others, such as boundless
ambition, aspiration to something unknown, profound misanthropy,
were either too vague and boring in the end, or else had little margin
for their application in the town; so that in practice romanticism boiled
down to love with guitar accompaniment and manuscript periodicals

                           LEOPOLDO ALAS

filled with sentimental verses, which circulated hand to hand. What a
great pity that such sincere lyricism was so often accompanied by vile
satires in which certain poets censured the language of others, reveal-
ing that envy is compatible with the most exaggerated idealism! As for
romantic love, if indeed it began in the purest and most conceptual
form, it usually degenerated into classical affectation; for the imagina-
tions of those dreamers, to tell the truth, were much weaker and less
constant than the commonly rich-blooded natural robustness of their
temperaments; and blind rapacity, which was never romantic, took its
toll as in the time of the Renaissance, classicism itself and every other
time; and in short, as all the group members in the Cascos store ad-
mitted, public morality had never left so much to be desired as in the
blessed romantic years; adulteries abounded then; the somewhat dete-
riorated Don Juans who remained in the city had had a grand time of it
in that era; and as for the young unmarried girls of good family, it was
known that many had escaped by the balcony, or the door, with a
lover; or, not escaping, had ended up pregnant without the mediation
of any sacrament. Cascos‟ discussion group and the shop in the Arcade
had been, respectively, occasion and stage of many of those adven-
tures, which were enveloped in pungent mystery, and then came to be
the fodder of likewise mysterious and no less pungent gossip. Al-
though such excesses were condemned in the name of religion and
morality, it could not be denied that in the very individuals who gos-
siped and censured (perhaps accomplices, for love of art, of such ex-
tremes), a recondite admiration could be divined, something similar to
what was inspired by the poets in vogue, or the best actors, or Italian
singers – good and bad – or excellent guitarists. The romanticism ma-
nifested in society (in that era they had not yet invented the habit of
talking about reality) was a sort of superior level of the common es-
thetic creed. On the other hand, if the former partisans of the clair de
lune in the fabrics shop were forced to assert the moral inferiority of
those times – as regards the sixth commandment at least – they
claimed for them the virtues of good form and euphemism in lan-
guage; thus everything was said in a roundabout manner, with opaque
phrases; and speaking, for example, of affairs with illegal conse-
quences, one would say, “John is wooing Mary.” By any measure life
was more entertaining then, the youth more spirited, women more
sensitive. And the thought of this would elicit a sigh from the habitués
of the store belonging to Cascos, who had died, leaving to his widow
the inheritance of the cloth, the clientèle and the ex-romantic group
members, now too advanced in years and cares, and many in fat, to

                           LEOPOLDO ALAS

think of transcendental sentimentalities. But no matter; they went on
sighing, and many of those prolonged silences which consecrated the
now august obscurity of the cave-like store, many of those silences so
soothing to Reyes, were dedicated to the memories of this or that year
of the forties. The widow, a respectable lady of fifty summers, had per-
haps loved, and let herself be loved, by one of those assiduous cronies,
Don Críspulo Crespo, the court recorder, an upright, energetic, intel-
ligent official, and very ill-humored; yes, they had loved, although with-
out scandalizing Cascos; and in the opinion of their friends, went on
loving; but everyone respected that hidden, inveterate passion; it was
rarely alluded to, and was held as the only living memory of better
times; and they showed their respect for that posthumous document of
dead romanticism only by invariably leaving a privileged place behind
the counter for Don Críspulo.
   Bonifacio, who had been one of the most distinguished epigones of
that now moribund retail romanticism, felt he was appreciated in the
group, and sought refuge in it as in a mother‟s warm bosom.
   One evening when Emma chucked him out of her bedroom for con-
fusing the ingredients of a poultice – rare happening! – Bonifacio went
to the fabrics store, yearning more than ever for the voluptuousness of
remembrance. Don Críspulo was in his privileged chair. The widow
was knitting opposite him. Neither spoke. The other ex-romantics, be-
tween coughs and long intervals of silence which seemed to be part of
the ceremony of a mysterious, somnolent ritual, were talking in the
gray semi-darkness, on the other side of the counter, reviewing their
common memories. Who lived in that square facing, back in the for-
ties? The church paymaster, there present, a man of prodigious memo-
ry, recalled one by one the inhabitants of those sad, dirty buildings,
labyrinthine three-storey houses. Gumía‟s daughters had died in Hava-
na, where the oldest girl‟s husband had been a magistrate in forty-six;
the secretary of the civil government, who was named Escandón, had
lived on the second floor of Gumía‟s big house: he was a Galician, a
very good poet, who committed suicide in Zamora three years later,
because as treasurer he had been held responsible for an embezzle-
ment carried out by the accountant. Number five was where the Cas-
trillos had lived, five brothers and five sisters, who had a discussion
group and put on plays at home; the Castrillo house had been one of
the centers of romanticism in the town; that was where they wrote the
anonymous clandestine newspaper, which was then placed under vari-
ous doors. Perico Castrillo had been a great talent, but between women
and drink he was lost, and died insane in the Valladolid hospital. An-

                            LEOPOLDO ALAS

tonio Castrillo had been the best ombre player in the province, had
later gone to play in Madrid, and got on so well there, always playing
ombre, that he made a name in politics, and was an undersecretary in
the times of Istúriz. But he and the rest of the Castrillo boys had died
of consumption. As for the girls, they had gone their ways, three in bad
marriages, one a nun, and the other ruined by a libertine from the pro-
vince of Logroño, Captain Suero.
  When he got around to number nine the paymaster sighed demon-
  “There…you gentlemen will all remember who lived there in the
  “La Tiplona,” some said.
  “Merlatti,” others exclaimed.
  La Tiplona, Merlatti, had been the microcosm of musical romanticism
in the town. She was an Italian soprano, whom those provincials
would not have hesitated to compare with Grissi or Malibrán, with no
need of having heard them. Those formal gentlemen would not grant
that anything better than Merlatti had ever been heard in this world…
And what a figure! And what manners! She was taller than any of
them, white as snow, smooth as silk, and with a musculature as exube-
rant as well contoured; she rode English style, shot a pistol, and in the
middle of the boulevard had slapped la Toplina, her rival Volpucci, who
also had her followers. Volpucci was thin, pliable as a reed, and shone
brighter in the fioriture; but in voice and figure and stage presence there
was no comparison. La Tiplona had won out, and returned to the city
for several seasons, finally marrying a retired colonel, owner of a house
in Theater Square, Colonel Cerecedo; and she had lived there for years
and years, giving concerts at home, admired and loved by the philhar-
monic folk, who were delighted and inflamed by the ex-soprano‟s in-
creasingly ample charms. And – who would have imagined it! – she too
had died of consumption, after a miscarriage. La Tiplona! Among those
gentlemen, he who had most and he who had least loved her, secretly
or openly, and Bonifacio himself, very young at the time, had to con-
fess that their fondness for serious opera had grown by listening to
that regal young woman who displayed her alabaster breast, her deli-
cate foot, exquisitely shoed, and her pearly teeth.
  The paymaster continued passing review of the local inhabitants of
the forties; from that melancholy enumeration of the dead and gone
arose a stench of ruin and the grave; hearing him, it seemed they were
champing the dust of a demolition, and the bones of a common grave
were turning over, all together. Suicide, consumption, defeat, flight,

                            LEOPOLDO ALAS

burial alive issued like a wheel of torment from those rotten, gapped
teeth, which tolled the knell with the frightful indifference of a sacri-
stan. The old boy ended his detailed history, his eyes afire with pride.
-What a memory I‟ve got! he thought. -What a world this is! thought
the rest.
   That narration had made Bonifacio remember the pathetic spectacle
of the house where he had been born, in ruins; yes, he had witnessed
the disintegration of yellow-painted walls and others papered in green
boughs; he had seen how in a vertical plane the dismantled fire-place,
by whose loving glow his mother had put him to sleep with marvelous
stories: above, on the third floor…without a floor…all that was left of
the warming hearth was the gap of a stew-hole in a cracked, filthy,
dusty dividing wall. The bedroom where his father had died was in the
open air, continuously exposed to indifferent public stares! Yes; he had
seen the miserable remains up there, the wall discolored by the sick
man‟s expectorations, the marks of the humble iron bed in the grease
of the wall… What was left of all that household, that family, poor but
happy in their love? He was left, an enthusiast of the flute, in the
power of his Emma, a fury, yes, a fury, there was no reason for him to
deny it. The house had disappeared; those ruins of his home had long
been the scandal of town gossip. „But when are they going to tear
down the squalid façade at that disgusting corner of Market Street?‟
This had been the cry of the local press for months on end, and finally
the town council had applied the pickax of Urban Propriety, as the paper
said, to the last remains of so many sacred memories. And he himself,
thought Bonifacio, what was he but a gross corner, a disgusting ruin
who was upsetting a whole high-born family with his insistence on liv-
ing, and being, by a deplorable aberration, his wife‟s husband. All these
pathetic and humiliating ideas had been awakened in his spirit by that
devil of a paymaster with his retrospective survey of the forties. History!
Oh yes! history in the operas was all very entertaining… Semíramis, Ne-
buchadnezzar, The Crusades, Attila…quite magnificent…but the stories of
the Gumías, the Castrillos, so much death, shame, separation and cor-
ruption…it shrank his soul. As it happened, the conversation turned
again to la Tiplona, which encouraged them to recall the operas that had
been sung in those days and compare them with those sung now. The
fact was, now there were no operas sung in the town, for it was almost
eight years since a mediocre quartet had performed there. Then the
paymaster, who had so dampened the mood of the gathering, deemed
it apt, contrary to his custom, to announce some current news. His
custom was to soundly scorn all recent and imminent events, which did

                            LEOPOLDO ALAS

not require great retentiveness, as he called memory, in order to be re-
lated or deduced. The good man said with an air of indifference:
   “Well, you‟re going to have opera now, gentlemen, and good opera;
the Mayor has told me that the renowned Mochi and Gorgheggi have
requested the theater from León.”
   “Gorgheggi!” they cried in unison.
   And even the court recorder, half hidden in the shadows, made a
movement of surprise in his chair, and the widow looked at him and
sighed discreetly.
   The tenor Mochi, renowned in all the provincial theaters of the king-
dom, and his protégée and disciple Gorgheggi arrived in the town a
week later. They sang La straniera the first night, and although the most
philharmonic daily of the capital „dared not render judgement after a
single hearing‟, the audience, less circumspect (with, it is also true, less
responsibility before the history of art), was certainly ardent, and swore
en masse that they hadn‟t heard such a prodigious style since la Tiplona.
Gorgheggi was a nightingale; and on top of that, how pretty, how
charming, how attentive to the audience, how appreciative of ap-
plause! She was pretty, all right; she was a plump, white Englishwoman
translated into Italian by her friend Mochi: sweet and soft in her move-
ments, with clear, serene eyes; a brow of pure lines, which she dis-
played modestly; an unusual coiffure, with her hair falling in light-
chestnut waves, making a simple frame for that pallid whiteness, where
even by day, so Bonifacio thought, there seemed to be glints of moon-
light. Bonifacio saw two acts of La straniera on opening night, dragged
himself, by a supreme effort of will, from the clutches of temptation
and returned to the side of his spouse, his Emma, who, yellow and dis-
torted, her hair all in tangles, began shouting in her bedroom because
her husband had abandoned her, arriving late, very late, much later
than she had ordered, to give her a massage, without which she ima-
gined she would die in short order. Reyes came in, gave her the mas-
sage with great vigor, without a word, listening resignedly to his wife‟s
shouting, mixed with reproaches, and thinking of Gorgheggi‟s brow
and voice and the finale of La straniera, which they would be singing
   And Bonifacio went to bed, pondering: -Yes, she really is lovely, but
the best part of her is her brow; that gentle curve speaks mysteries to
my heart, that sweet wave!… And her voice is…maternal; she sings
with the coquetry that a mother might use to put a child to sleep in her
arms; she seems to lull us all, to soothe us…she has…although it
might sound like foolishness, she has an honest voice, the voice of a

                            LEOPOLDO ALAS

housewife who sings really well: that mellowness, as Don Críspulo says,
must be what seems to me a timbre of goodness; that‟s how women
should sing when they‟re busy sewing a dress or caring for a convales-
cent…what can I say! that voice reminds me of my mother…who
never sang. Foolishness! Yes, foolish to say it aloud, not to think it…
Anyway, what‟s she got to do with me? Nothing. Emma probably
won‟t let me go back to the theater.- And he went to sleep thinking of
Gorgheggi‟s brow and voice.
  The next day, at twelve noon, there was a rehearsal, and Bonifacio
was there, more dead than alive, imagining the scene his wife was un-
doubtedly preparing for his return. He had escaped from home. And
he had to admit, the pleasure of being there was enhanced by the act of
rebellion his presence in such a place implied.
  It had always been the rehearsals that Reyes most enjoyed. He did
not fully understand why he preferred them to more solemn and mag-
nificent performances. This was what he concluded, in his way: the
genuine theater, the inner theater, was the rehearsal; Reyes did not like
fiction in anything, not even in art; he said that tenors and sopranos
should not sing in front of footlights, among canvas trees, dressed in
calico, before a distracted audience in a narrow hall where the air was
poison; tenors and sopranos should go, like nightingales or sirens, scat-
tered through remote, hidden forests, or on mysterious islands, and
loose their trills and warbles in the clear moonlit night to the rhythm of
melancholy waves beating on the shore and forest branches swaying in
the breeze… Fine; but since that was impossible, Bonifacio preferred
hearing singers in a rehearsal. Because there one saw the artiste as he
was, not as he had to pretend he was. By an instinct of good taste he
could not be aware of, what he abhorred in theatrical presentations was
the school of emotive declamation, the false expressions, costumes,
gestures, etc., etc., of the actors who played in that poor provincial the-
ater. In the rehearsal he did not see a Nebuchadnezzar who seemed the
king of coarse woolens, nor an Attila who looked like a goatherd, but a
particular gentleman who sang well and was genuinely concerned with
his own affairs, for instance, the bad pay, the bad weather that was
straining his voice, or the mail, bringing bad news. Bonifacio loved art
for the artist, admired those people who went the world over, never
sure of tomorrow‟s meals, worried about their own and others‟ quavers
and roulades. -A man‟s got guts, he thought, if he‟ll stake his existence
on an oboe or a cornet or a cello, for example, or the voice of a second
bass, for twenty reals a day, which is the least you could sing for! I for
instance would be a fair flautist, but not for the world would I dare run

                           LEOPOLDO ALAS

away and go to the ends of the earth, to Russia even, filling orchestra
vacancies! Possibly for the sake of my dignity it would have been better
to undertake such a career, but I‟d throw myself in the sea first!
Chance…the unforeseen…the doubtful meals: it‟s frightful!- And just
as he thought himself incapable of being an artiste, in the sense of tak-
ing off with nothing but his flute, so he increasingly admired those
others, who were undoubtedly made of better stuff.
   Now what did attract Bonifacio was the position of the foreigner,
and even someone from another region; not to be from his town, that
narrow-minded town where he and his wife had been born, constituted
a privilege; to be from far away was a wonder… The world…the rest
of the world must be so beautiful! The part he knew was so ugly, so
insignificant, that the beauties he had dreamed of and read about in
poems and adventure novels had to be, without a doubt, in all those
unknown places… In Mexico he had not seen much of any good; but
after all, Mexico had been a Spanish colony and the pettiness had been
imported from over here. The real foreign countries were different. And
they were where the artists, the singers came from… To be Italian, to
be an artist…to be a musician, that was honey on your pancakes and
nectar on the honey. And when the foreigner, the artist, the musician
…was female, then Bonifacio‟s respect and admiration turned into re-
ligion, idolatry… For all which, and for all the reasons previously
given, he much preferred to see the actors and actresses as they were,
and not painted as kings and priestesses respectively. It was in the re-
hearsal, in the rehearsal where you got to know the artist…
   He went into the proscenium box that his friends at the fabrics shop
had held on subscription from time immemorial; it was the lowest of
the parterres, as they then called what were later named the orchestra
seats, and because it was at the proscenium and half hidden by a sup-
porting wall, it had the vulgar nickname of fob (years later, purse).
There was no one in the box. Reyes opened the door, trying to avoid
making the slightest sound. For him the theater was the temple of art,
and music a religion. He sat down with the movements of a silent,
sluggish cat; leaned his elbows on the rail and tried to make out the
bulky forms that were crossing the dark stage like shadows in the pe-
numbra. There were no gas systems then, and lighting could not be
brought by narrow pipes, at a discreet height, as it was done years later,
even there; from the apron the modest footlights spread the little light
they could, like fallen stars…of oil. At stage right (so Reyes was think-
ing), around a table barely lighted by a dim kerosene lamp, there was a
group of shadows that were slowly becoming distinct. They were the

                             LEOPOLDO ALAS

scenic director, the prompter, a call-boy and a short, fat man with an
extraordinary belly, dressed to perfection, very white, very distinguished
in his manners; he was Signor Mochi, impresario and first tenor…and
last…of the company. Other silent groups were wandering about at
the back; they were the male choristers: the corps of ladies were sitting
in the round at the left. Wherever those pale, badly dressed dames
came together, they tended, by force of habit, to form arcs of a circle,
semicircles and circles according to circumstance.
   Reyes, who had read the Odyssey in translation, remembered the fas-
cinating visit that Ulysses makes to hell; that opaque subterranean life
of Erebus, where he believed it must be so boring for the souls who
went there, was presented to him now, seeing the gloomy actors, silent
and aimless, crossing the dark stage like specters. He knew, of course,
that at other times joy reigned there, soon things would be more live-
ly; but in rehearsals there were always those quarter-hours of melan-
choly. When the artiste is not animated by that, let us say, spiritual alco-
hol of esthetic enthusiasm, he often falls into an apathy not unlike that
which overwhelms the wretched slaves of hashish and opium… Reyes
had, in his way, made a deep psychological study of the poor, once
notable tenors who came wrecked to his town, like old boats that seek
a shore where they can die peacefully, laid out on the sand; he also
knew a good deal about third-rate sopranos who tried to pass for stars:
although he was still very young when he had occasion to make such
observations, serene reflection had helped him no little. He observed
sympathizing and sympathized admiring, so that his analysis went to
the heart of things. What he did not see was the artists‟ bad side. He
poeticized everything about them. The sharp, biting contrasts between
their dreams of glory, their life on the boards and the petty prose of a
difficult existence, full of bitter chafing against necessity and misery,
seemed to Reyes motives of poetic piety, which gave his idols a halo of
   That day, as always, he tried to attract the attention of the cast (tenor,
soprano, baritone, bass and contralto), which he usually accomplished
by smiling discreetly when one of the singers looked his way by chance
after gallantly attacking a note or accomplishing any throatly delicacy, or
likewise after making a joke.
   Mochi, the short, fat tenor, was like a squirrel and talked more than a
sewing-machine salesman, but in impenetrable Italian, and with enor-
mous elegance in his manners. He would speak with the musical di-
rector, who was always laughing, and Reyes, who did not understand
Mochi, but thought he divined his meaning, would also smile. Since

                          LEOPOLDO ALAS

there was no one else besides him who was merely watching the re-
hearsal, the tenor was not long in noting his presence and his smiles,
and within a short time was dedicating all his concetti to him, Reyes.
Bonifacio was so pleased, he debated, when he rose to leave the box,
whether he should acknowledge the tenor with a slight nod of the
head. Mochi looked at Reyes…and Reyes, blushing all over, shook his
lovely head of hair with mannequin motions, and went home…im-
pregnated with the Ideal.


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