by Emilia Pardo Bazán
No one in the region talked of anything else. What a miracle! Does it happen every day that a septuagenarian goes to the altar with a girl of fifteen?
Or, to be exact: Inesiña, the niece of the parish priest of Gondelle, had just passed the age of fifteen years and two months when her own uncle, in the church of the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Plomo, three leagues from Vilamorta, presided over her union with Don Fortunato Gayoso, age seventy seven and a half, according to his baptismal certificate.
Inesiña’s only request had been to be married in the Sanctuary; she was devoted to the Virgin and always wore the scapular of Our Lady of Plomo, of white flannel and blue silk. And as her groom could not climb the steep slope that led to the church from the highway between Cebre and Vilamorta on foot, nor could he support himself astride a horse (how could he, the shriveled old man!), they devised a way that two strapping young men from Gondelle, with the help of an enormous grape harvesting basket, could convey Don Fortunato as by sedan chair up to the church. What a laugh!
However, in the casinos, apothecaries, and other circles, shall we say, of Vilamorta and Cebre, as well as in the vestibules and sacristies of the parish churches, it was agreed that Gondelle had been hunting a very long time, and that Inesiña had won the grand prize. Let’s take a look: who was Inesiña? A fresh young girl, full of life, with bright eyes and cheeks like roses; but what the hell, there are so many like that from the Sil to the Avieiro!
On the other hand, you won’t find riches like Don Fortunato’s in the entire province. It might have been honestly earned, or dishonestly, because those who return from the other side of the world with so many thousands of duros, God knows what story they’re hiding between the two flaps of their traveling bag; only that…. Tch! Who sticks their nose into investigating the source of great wealth? Great wealth is like great weather: one enjoys it and doesn’t ask the cause.
That Señor Gayoso had brought a fortune was verified by very authentic and trustworthy reports; in the branch office of the Bank of Auribella alone, he had deposited nearly two million reales, awaiting the opportinity to invest it (in Cebre and Vilamorta they still count money in reales). Every piece of land for sale in the region, Gayoso bought without haggling; in the Plaza de la Constitución in Vilamorta he had acquired a group of three houses, demolishing them and erecting on the site a new and magnificent edifice.
“Wouldn’t six feet of dirt be enough for that senile old man?” asked the regulars at the casino, amidst the mockery and the insults.
It can be imagined what more they said when the strange news of the wedding spread, and when it became known that Don Fortunato had not only given the priest’s niece a splendid dowry, but had made her his sole heir. The screeching from the rich man’s relatives, both near relations and less near, reached to heaven; they spoke of courts, of senile dementia, of confinement in a madhouse. But since Don Fortunato, though well along in years and dried up like a raisin, retained his faculties intact, and could get along and manage perfectly well, they had to leave him alone, entrusting his punishment to his own folly.
There was no avoiding the monstrous tin-pan serenade. In front of the new house, decorated and furnished with no expenses spared, to which the married couple had already returned, more than five hundred barbarians gathered, armed with pots, pans, trivets, cans, horns and whistles. They made as much racket as they pleased, without anyone putting a stop to them; in the building no windows opened, no light filtered through the gaps. Tired and disillusioned, the noisemakers went home to sleep as well. Even though they had plotted to rattle their pots and pans for an entire week, it’s certain that when night fell on the day after the wedding, they left the conjugal pair in peace, and the plaza in solitude.
Meanwhile, there inside the beautiful mansion, filled with costly furniture and everything required for comfort and pleasure, the bride thought she was dreaming; she almost could have danced by herself with delight. The fear, more instinctive than rational, with which she’d gone to the altar of Our Lady of Plomo had dissipated before the sweet and paternal explanations of her elderly husband, who only asked of his tender wife a little affection and warmth, the constant care that the extremely elderly require.
Now Inesiña understood the repeated “Don’t be afraid, silly girl”; the “marry in peace” of her uncle the abbot of Gondelle. It was a merciful duty, it was the role of nurse and daughter that she was to carry out for a time… perhaps, not for very long. The proof that she would continue being a little girl was the two enormous dolls, dressed in silk and lace, very serious and with vacuous faces, which she found in her dressing room, ensconced on the satin loveseat. It was inconceivable, either hypothetically or in a dream, that any other children could arrive, other than those of fine porcelain.
Attend to the old man! Well, that Ines would willingly do. Day and night–most of all night, because that was when he needed her at his side, held close to his body, a sweet shelter–she had promised to look after him, to never leave him for a minute. Poor man! He was so kind, with his right foot already so deep in the grave! Ines’s heart was moved: not having known her father, she imagined that God had provided her one. She would act as his daughter, and even more, because daughters don’t provide such intimate care, they don’t offer their youthful heat, the warm emanations of their bodies; and it was in precisely this that Don Fortunato believed he would find some remedy for his decrepitude.
“I am cold, very cold, my dear,” he repeated, “from the snow of so many years congealed in my veins. I have sought you as one seeks the sun; I huddle up to you as I would huddle up to a benevolent flame in the middle of winter. Come close to me, hold me in your arms; if you won’t, I shall shiver and freeze immediately. For God’s sake, shelter me; I don’t ask for more.”
What the old man did not reveal, what he kept a secret between himself and the English quack whom he had consulted as a last resort, was the conviction that by joining his old age to Inesiña’s fresh spring, a mysterious exchange would take place. If the girl’s vital energy, the flower of her vigor, her untouched reserves of strength were to revive Don Fortunato, his decrepitude and depletion would transfer to her, transmitted by the mixture and exchange of their breath, the old man gathering in a pure, burning, living aura, and the maiden absorbing the vapors of the grave.
Gayoso knew that Inesiña was the victim, the sheep brought to the slaughterhouse; and with the ferocious selfishness of the final years of existence, when everything is sacrificed to the yearning to prolong life, even if only by hours, he didn’t feel even a trace of compassion. He clung to Ines, absorbing her healthy respiration, her perfumed, delicious breath, captured in the crystal urn of her white teeth. This was the ultimate, generous, precious liquor that he had bought and was drinking to sustain himself. And if he had believed that making an incision in the girl’s neck and sucking the blood from her veins would renew him, he felt capable of doing so. Had he not paid? So Ines was his.
Great was the astonishment in Vilamorta–even greater than that caused by the wedding–when they noticed that Don Fortunato, whom they had marked as eight days from the grave, gave signs of improvement, almost of rejuvenation. He now went out on foot for short intervals, first leaning on his wife’s arm, later on a cane, at each step straighter, his legs trembling less. After two or three months of marriage he allowed himself to go to the casino, and at mid-year–how marvelous!–he played billiards, discarding his frock coat, a healthy man. It might have been said that his skin had filled out, that they were injecting him with serums: his cheeks lost their deep furrows, his head was erect, his eyes were no longer dead eyes plunging into his skull. And Vilamorta’s doctor, the celebrated Tropiezo, repeated with a kind of comic terror:
“I’ll be damned if we don’t have here a centenarian like one of those they talk about in the papers.”
This same Tropiezo had to attend to Inesiña during the long and slow illness which killed her–poor child!–before her twentieth birthday. Consumption, a hectic fever, signs that expressed most significantly the decline of a living being who had given away her resources to another. The priest’s niece did not lack a good funeral, nor a good tomb; but Don Fortunato is seeking a bride. This time, either he leaves town, or the tin-pan serenade ends by burning down his house, dragging him out, and beating him to death. These things won’t be tolerated twice! And Don Fortunato laughs, chewing on the end of a cigar with his false teeth.
Collected in Cuentos del terruño (Stories from the Homeland) 1907.
First published in Blanco y Negro, No. 539, 1901.
Translated by Nina Zumel