by Emilia Pardo Bazán
The four tapers burned, dripping droplets of wax. A bat, dropping down from the vaulted ceiling, began to describe awkward curves in the air. A compact, shadowy form slipped across the flagstones and climbed with somber caution over a fold of the pall. In the same instant, Dorotea de Guevara opened her eyes, recumbent in her tomb.
She was well aware that she was not dead; but a leaden veil, a bronze padlock prevented her from seeing and speaking. She heard, yes, and perceived–as one perceives within dreams–what had been done to her when they washed and enshrouded her. She heard the sobs of her husband, and felt her children’s tears on her rigid white cheeks. And now, in the solitude of the closed up church, she had recovered her senses, and was overcome with great fear. This was no nightmare, but reality. There, the coffin; there, the candles… and she herself wrapped in a white shroud, with the scapular of Our Lady of Mercy on her breast.
Now back in the flesh, the joy of existing overpowered everything. She lived. How good it is to live, to revive, to not fall into the dark depths! Instead of being lowered at dawn, borne on the shoulders of servants to the crypt, she would return to her sweet home, and would hear the elated clamor of those who loved her and were now crying inconsolably. The delicious idea of the bliss that she would bring to the house made her heart palpitate, still weakened as it was by her coma. She drew her legs from the casket, leapt to the ground, and with the supreme haste of critical moments formulated her plan. To call, to cry for help at such an hour would be useless. Nor was she capable of awaiting the dawn in the empty church; from the semi-darkness of the nave she imagined that the mocking faces of ghosts loomed and the mournful groans of grieving souls sounded…. She had another recourse: to leave through the Christ chapel.
It was hers: it belonged to her family as patrons of the church. Dorotea kept there a holy image of Our Lord of Penitence, perpetually illuminated with a rich silver lamp. Beneath the chapel lay the crypt, the burial place of the Guevara Benavides. The high filigreed grille could be glimpsed to the left, touched by traces of tarnished, reddish gold. Dorotea lifted up from her soul a fervored petition to Christ. Dear Lord! Let the keys be there! And she felt them: there hung all three, the set: that of the grille itself, that of the crypt, to which one descended by a spiral staircase near the wall, and the third key, which opened the small hidden door between the carvings of the altarpiece that opened onto a narrow side street, where the noble facade of the Guevara mansion stood, flanked by turrets. By this private door the Guevara family entered to hear Mass in their chapel, without crossing the nave. Dorotea opened the door, pushed… She was outside the church, she was free.
Ten paces to her abode… The palace rose up silently, somber, like an enigma. Dorotea took up the doorknocker tremulously, like a beggar asking for hospitality in an hour of need. “This house is my house, is it not?” she thought, as she knocked firmly a second time. On the third knock, she heard noise inside the mute and solemn dwelling, wrapped in its seclusion as in a long shroud of mourning. And the voice of Pedralvar, the footman, resounded, growling:
“Who’s there? Who’s calling at this hour, I’ll see you eaten by dogs!”
“Open up, Pedralvar, by your life… I am your mistress, I am Doña Dorotea de Guevara! Open up, quickly!”
“Go to hell, you drunkard! If I come out, by my faith I will run you through!”
“I am Doña Dorotea…Open up….Don’t you recognize my voice?”
An oath, hoarse with fear, answered her. Instead of opening the door, Pedralvar ascended the staircase again. The rearisen woman knocked twice more. The austere house seemed to revive; the footman’s terror ran through it like a shiver down a spine. The knocking persisted, and in the doorway could be heard stamping, running, whispering. Finally the studded front double doors half-opened its two leaves, and a piercing scream came out of the pink mouth of the maidservant Lucigüela, who held up a silver candelabra with a burning candle, and let it suddenly drop; she had come face to face with her mistress, the dead woman, dragging her shroud behind her and staring at Lucigüela…
Some time passed. Dorotea–now dressed in slashed Genovese velvet, her hair braided with pearls, and sitting on a cushioned armchair at the foot of a large window– remembered that Enrique de Guevara, her husband, also screamed upon recognizing her; screamed and backed away. It was not a scream of delight, but of horror. Of horror, yes, the rearisen woman could not doubt it. Then there were her children, Doña Clara, eleven years old; Don Félix, nine. Hadn’t they cried from pure terror when they saw their mother returned from the grave? And with weeping more heart-broken, more distressed, than the tears spilled when she had been taken away… She who believed they would receive her with exclamations of intense happiness! Certainly, in the following days they celebrated a most solemn feast of thanksgiving; certainly, they gave a lavish banquet to family and close friends; certainly, in short, the Guevaras did everything they could do to demonstrate gratitude for the remarkable and unthinkable event that had returned to them their wife and mother… But Doña Dorotea, resting her elbow on the window sill and her cheek in her hand, thought of other things.
Since her return to the palace, everyone furtively fled from her. It was said that the cold air of the grave, the icy breath of the crypt, floated around her body. While she ate, she noticed that the gaze of the servers, of her children, slid obliquely from her pale hands, and when she brought the glass of wine to her dry lips, the youngsters shuddered. Did it not seem natural to them that people from the other world eat and drink? And Doña Dorotea came from that mysterious country that children conjecture, although they don’t comprehend it…
If her pale motherly hands tried to play with Don Félix’s blonde curls, the little boy deflected them, blanching in his turn, with the gesture of someone who avoids a touch that curdles his blood. And at the dreadful hour of dusk, when the long figures on the tapestries seemed to oscillate, if Dorotea came across Doña Clara in the patio dining room, the child, terrified, fled as if she were fleeing a cursed ghost…
For his part, her husband, while maintaining towards Dorotea a marvelous amount of respect and reverence, had not again put his strong arms around her waist… In vain the rearisen woman rouged her cheeks, festooned her braids with ribbons and seed pearls, and scented her bodice with essences from the Orient. Beneath the rouge her waxy sallowness was still apparent; around her face the shape of the funeral headdress persisted, and through the perfume emerged the damp aroma of the tomb. There was a moment when the rearisen woman tried giving her husband his rightful caresses; she wanted to know if she would be rejected. Don Enrique passively allowed himself to be embraced; but in his eyes, black and dilated by a horror that in spite of himself showed out of the windows of his soul, in those eyes that were once bold and lusty gallants, Dorotea read a sentence that buzzed inside her mind, already invaded by bouts of dementia.
“You have returned from where no one returns…”
She took good precautions. Her purpose would be realized in such a way that no one would ever know; an eternal secret. She obtained the ring of keys from the chapel and ordered duplicates to be made by a young blacksmith, who left with his regiment to Flanders the following day. The keys to the sepulcher now in her possession, Dorotea left unseen one afternoon, covered with a shawl; she entered the church through the little door in the side street, and hid herself in the Christ chapel. When the sacristan retired for the evening, shutting up the church, Dorotea slowly descended to the crypt, lighting her way by a candle burning in a lamp. She opened the mouldering door, shut herself inside, and lay herself down, first extinguishing the candle with her foot.
From the collection Cuentos trágicos (Tragic tales), 1912.
First published in El Imparcial, 29 June, 1908.
Translated by Nina Zumel