Juan Holgado and Death

Juan Holgado and Death
(Juan Holgado y La Muerte)
by Fernán Caballero (Cecilia Böhl de Faber)

Once upon a time there was a certain man named Juan Holgado (i.e., John Well-off); and truly nobody could have less deserved such a name, for morning nor evening, as a rule, could the poor fellow get enough to satisfy his hunger. Moreover he had a heap of youngsters with gullets like sharks.

One day Juan Holgado said to his wife:

“These brats are a pack of gluttons, and are capable of swallowing oilcloth itself. I should like to eat a hare by myself, at my pleasure, and without these young mastiffs to take it out of my mouth.”

His wife, who was a sweet woman, and always endeavouring to improve matters, in order not to worry the children, sold a dozen of eggs, which her hens had just laid, bought a hare with the money, cooked it with some meat broth, and early in the morning on the following day said to her husband:

“Here in this pan is a cooked hare and half a loaf of bread; go and eat them in the field and much good may it do you.”

Juan Holgado was not deaf, but seized the pan and ran off without waiting to see which way he was going. After he had gone about a league and a half, he sat down beneath the shade of an olive-tree, more contented than a king, and recommending himself to our Lady of Loneliness, drew forth the bread, and putting down the pipkin with the hare in it, prepared for the feast. But just imagine his feelings when he suddenly saw, seated in front of him, an old woman dressed in black, and as ugly as—an unwilling gift! She was yellower and as skinny as lawyer’s parchment; her eyes were as sunken and ghastly as a burnt-out lamp; her mouth was like a basket, whilst as for a nose—well, she had none, not even the memory of one. The grace which Juan Holgado said when he beheld this companion, dropped as it seemed from the clouds, was not a benediction. But what was to be done? He was not quite a barbarian, so he asked her if she would like to eat.

As the old woman wished for nothing else, she answered that, rather than be unmannerly, she would partake of his meal. She seated herself and began to eat. Good gracious! It was not eating, but devouring. What a gullet! In a twinkling she had put the whole hare out of sight.

“By all that is holy!” said Juan Holgado to himself; “it would have been better to have had my children to eat the hare than this old she demon! When one is unlucky, nothing ever goes right.”

When the old woman had finished—and not even the hare’s tail was left—she said:

“Juan Holgado, I liked that hare very much.”

“So I have seen!” replied Juan Holgado.

“I wish to repay the favour.”

“May you live a thousand years!” slily remarked Juan, as he noticed the old lady’s decrepitude.

“Doubtless I shall,” responded she, “as I am Death herself.”

Juan Holgado gave a very uneasy start, as he invoked Heaven.

“Do not disturb yourself, Juan Holgado, that need not trouble you. In order to repay you your favour, I am going to give you some advice. Become a doctor; for, according to my experience, there is no such a profession in the world as that, for becoming famous and gaining money.”

“Madam Death, I should be very contented if, instead of that, you would oblige me with a good crop of years for myself; besides, the medical business is not in my line.”

“Why not, man?”

“Because I have never studied it.”

“That is nothing.”

“Madam, I know neither Latin nor Greek.”

“It does not matter.”

“Madam, I know nothing of Geography.”

“That does not affect the question.”

“Madam, I cannot count beyond one.”

“It is all the same.”

“Madam, my hand trembles so that I cannot write; nor can I read without getting into a brown study.”

“Nonsense, fibber, nonsense!” said Death, “I am getting impatient at so many difficulties. Strange too with a fellow like you, Juan Holgado, who has a good sound headpiece! Have I not been saying for the last hour, that it does not matter? I tell you, I would not give a penny whistle for all the doctors know: I neither come nor go because they call me, or know me. I please myself, and laugh at the doctors; and when I like, I lay hold of one by the ear and carry him off. When the world was first peopled there were no doctors, and then things went on comfortably and pleasantly, but as soon as doctors were invented there were no more Methuselas. You shall be a doctor, without any more fuss; and if you refuse, you shall come with me now, as sure as I am Death. Now attend to me, and be silent. In your whole life you have never prescribed anything but pure water, have you?”

“There you are right,” answered Juan Holgado, who was more prepared to assent to what Death said than to listen to her.

“If, when you enter a room, you see me seated at the head of the invalid, you may be sure that the person will die, that there is no remedy, and that you may prepare the person for me. If, on the contrary, I am not there, you may assure the invalid of recovery, and prescribe pure water.”

With these words the very ugly old woman took leave, after making a profound courtesy.

“Good madam,” said Juan Holgado, “I did not wish to take leave of you with that ‘Until we meet again;’ and I hope that your ladyship will have little desire of visiting me, because I have not always got a hare with which to regale myself, and when I had this one, the old thief carried it off.”

“Don’t be troubled, Juan Holgado,” said Death, “whilst your house is not delapidated I will not call there.”

Juan Holgado returned home and related to his wife what had passed; and his wife, who was more quickwitted than he, said to him, that whatsoever the old woman had said to him he might believe, because there was no one more truthful and certain than Death. And she soon spread about that her husband was a skilful doctor, and that he had only to look at an invalid in order to be able to know whether he would die or recover.

One Sunday there were a bevy of young girls, as merry as kittens, standing at the door of a house as Juan Holgado passed by. “Here comes Juan Holgado,” said one of them, “who at the end of his days sets up for a doctor. It is as if one went in for salad soup at the end of a feast! And so now he is to be called Don Juan, and the Don becomes him about as well as a high-crowned hat would a mule!” And they all began to sing ironically.

“Let us have a joke with this conceited fellow!” said one of the girls. “I will pretend to be ill, and see if he will believe it.”

No sooner said than done. The girls left a basket of figs that they were eating from, and before you could say “Jack Robinson,” the girl who devised the scheme was in bed, and all of the others were pretending to bemoan her. Choking with laughter, they ran off to call Juan Holgado. He came, and as he entered he noticed at the street door a great heap of figskins. Inside the door, the first person to greet him was his compatriot Death, who was seated at the head of the bed, more serious than an empty bottle.

“She is very ill,” then said Juan Holgado, and was going away.

“What is the matter with her?” said the girls, who could scarcely refrain from laughter.

“She has a surfeit of figs,” replied he.

Juan Holgado went away, and in two hours the girl was dead. The reputation which this gave to our doctor may be imagined. Whenever any one was ill in future, Juan Holgado was called in; and he gained guineas so quickly that he did not know what to do with them. He bought a title for his family, and some orders of knighthood for his sons. In the meanwhile he was satisfied with things as they went, so that he grew so fat and round that it did one good to see him; his face was like the full moon; his legs like pillars, and his fingers like sausages.

All this time Juan Holgado was very careful of his house. When the youngsters did any little injury to any part of it, he inflicted corporal punishment on them. He always retained a mason in his employ, whom he paid by the year, to keep the house in order, for he remembered that Death had told him that whilst he kept his house free from dilapidation she would not call there.

The years passed by, and each time ran faster than before, like a stone running down hill. The last brought a bad state of affairs. Juan Holgado received them very ungraciously, and in revenge one carried away his hair, another his teeth, and another bent his backbone nearly double, and another obliged him with a limp.

One day he was very bad, and Death sent him a warning by a bat, for which Juan Holgado was not very thankful. Another day he was suffering from phlegm, and Death sent to say, by an agent, that she was ready to visit him. Juan Holgado said to the messenger that it was all make-believe with him. Another day an accident happened, and Death sent word by a dog, which howled outside his door, in the street. Juan Holgado took his crutch to the dog, and gave it a hard whack. The invalid grew worse, and Death called at the door. Juan ordered it to be barred, and that it should not be opened to her; but she managed to get in through a crack.

“Madam Death,” said Juan Holgado to her, with a very bad grace, “you said that you would not come for me whilst my house was free from dilapidation; thus it is, that in spite of your messages, I have not expected you.”

“What!” exclaimed Death, “don’t you know that you have lost your powers? Don’t you see that you have lost your teeth and your hair? Your body is your house.”

“I did not know that, madam,” said the invalid; “thus it is that I trusted in your words, and your arrival takes me by surprise.”

“So much the worse for you, Juan Holgado,” replied Death, “for he who is always forewarned is never surprised nor troubled at my coming; but you were blind, when you did not know that you were born to die; and you die in order to gain rest.”


From The Bird of Truth and Other Fairy Tales (1883), translated by J. H. Ingram

Original Spanish collection: Cuentos y Poesias Populares Andaluces, coleccionados por Fernán Caballero (1859)

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