In the Wall
by Juana Manuela Gorriti
There were ten of us. The strongest downpour of last winter had brought us together by chance, trapped in a parlor around an improvised stove.
In that heterogenous circle doubly illuminated by gaslight and the embers of the fire, time was represented in its broadest sweep. Antiquity, the Middle Ages, the present, and even the promises of a smiling future, in the lovely eyes of four pretty and restless young ladies, who grew impatient, annoyed with the monotony of the evening.
The piano actually stood open, and the music desk held lovely sheet music and waltzes to choose from; but we had among us two men of the church; and their presence intimidated the young women, and prevented them from surrendering to the rhythms of Strauss and the melodies of Verdi. Nor did they even dare appeal to the supreme recourse of the bored: to pass arm in arm along the length of the room; and so they whispered among themselves, smothering prolonged yawns.
“My daughters,” the venerable vicar of J. said to them, having noticed their apathy. “Don’t mortify yourselves for us. I beg you, amuse yourselves your own way. For myself, I know that it would please me to hear you sing.”
Sing! The young ladies would have loved to; but it intimidated them to repeat the io t’amo of the Italian masters in the presence of those austere cassocks, and they looked at each other without knowing how to excuse themselves.
“Very well!” the vicar continued. “If you hesitate over the choice, let chance decide.”
And rising, he went to take from the stack of music books the first notebook that came to hand.
“Coincidences!” the girls exclaimed, laughing.
“Well then, my daughters, sing the coincidences.”
The young women laughed again.
“Good, you’re happy at last!”
“Sir, this notebook is blank,” said the girl who lived in the house. “It’s label is for the draft of a fantasy dedicated to the tutor who teaches me counterpoint.”
“‘Coincidences!’ That sounds more like stories than songs,” said an older woman.
“And when she says stories,” added another woman, “she means to say old folks’ tales.”
“And when you say old folks’ tales, you are referring to my ninety winters,” responded the vicar with comic anger.
“And to punish the regrettable touchiness of this minister of the Lord,” replied the matron, mimicking the intonation of a prosecutor, “I ask that we apply the letter of the law, and sentence him to tell us the story of a coincidence.”
“And to demonstrate to you that nine decades have not been able to free me from the complacent obedience due to such amiable judges, I will tell you of a very singular coincidence that for a long time made my mind vacillate between chance and the supernatural.”
At those words, the yawning ceased as if by magic; and the young women, losing their shyness, drew their chairs closer in a circle around the elderly vicar.
* * *
I was the parish priest of S., and I had promised the pastor of H. that I would preach the sermon at a celebration of his parish.
However, the day drew near and I still had not written it, overcome by the indolence that takes hold of the spirit in country life.
Finally, the eve of the celebration arrived. The pastor of H. sent for me, and I had to set out, without having put a hand to my work. I believed that the sight of the locale, of the church, and the preparations for the celebration would be a stimulant to compensate for my negligence.
But my arrival at H. presented me with another obstacle: the visiting.
To defeat this inconvenience, I shut myself into a cell of the old Jesuit monastery, a vast and solitary building, where I could isolate myself as in a desert. Foolish hope! For even there the officious greetings came to besiege me the entire day.
Finally, alarmed by the scant time I had left to compose my sermon, as soon as night fell I locked myself in and began to write it.
In the course of my work, I wanted to quote a passage that I thought came from Tertullian, and not remembering which chapter it was in, I started to search for it.
My head felt heavy, and at times my hand came to a halt over the pages of the book. It was midnight.
“Don’t search for your citation in Tertullian; you will find it in the eighth chapter of The Confessions of St. Augustine.”
On hearing that rebuke, I raised my head, surprised, and saw a cleric sitting before me.
I was about to ask him how he had gotten in, since the door was locked, when he, stretching out a pale, gaunt hand towards the back of the cell, said:
“I sleep there.”
At these words I gave a start that woke me up.
It was a dream, but the voice of the cleric still sounded in my ears: “Don’t search for your citation in Tertullian; you will find it in the eighth chapter of The Confessions of St. Augustine.”
Without realizing what I was doing I took up that book and opened it to the eighth chapter.
There I found the passage I had been looking for.
Surprised by that strange coincidence, I told myself: well, then. Sleep sometimes provides great clarity; and my recollection, rekindled under its influence, came to me in the fantastical guise of a cleric.
And I continued my work without thinking more about the incident.
The next day, when after my sermon I went over to the church, I met an architect in the cloister who told me he had been sent from Lima to remodel the monastery to serve as the site of a national college.
The celebration concluded, and having returned to the rectory, I went with my friend to see the architect’s first efforts.
Upon breaking down the dividing wall between the cell I occupied and the next, a double wall was found; and in its narrow gap, the corpse of a Jesuit.
Isn’t it true that my fantastic dream and the presence of that walled-in corpse were a strange coincidence?
* * *
Meanwhile, the young women, although they prided themselves on their strong spirits, had squeezed their chairs together, looking with terror at the ripples that the wind impressed into the parlor curtains.
“Well, if it’s coincidence we are talking about,” said Canon B., “here is one no less extraordinary….”
[to be continued in the next story]
From Panoramas de la vida (Panoramas of Life), 1876.
Translated by Nina Zumel