by Emilia Pardo Bazán
The present account, though it is a true story, cannot be read in the bright sun. I advise you, reader, make no mistake: turn on a light, but not an electric one, nor gaslight, nor even an oil lamp, but one of those nice ordinary candles of such pretty design, the kind that hardly sheds light, leaving the better part of the room in shadow. Or better yet: don’t light anything; pop out to the garden, near the pond, where the magnolias emanate intoxicating perfume and the moon silvery shimmers, and listen to the tale of the mandrake and the Baron Helynagy.
I met this foreigner (and I don’t say this to lend color to the story, but because I actually met him) in the simplest and least romantic way in the world: I was introduced to him at one of the many parties given by the Austrian ambassador. The baron was First Secretary of the embassy; but neither the post he occupied, nor his figure, nor his conversation, similar to that of the majority of the people to whom one is presented, really justified the mysterious tone and the reticent phrases with which they announced that they would introduce him to me, in the manner with which you announce some important event.
My curiosity piqued, I resolved to observe the baron carefully. He struck me as urbane, with that smooth finesse of diplomats, and handsome, with the somewhat impersonal beauty of society men, very well-groomed with the assistance of valet, tailor, and hairdresser–also dandies, dandies all. As for the baron’s moral and intellectual worth, it was difficult to determine in such insipid circumstances. After a half hour’s chat I thought to myself again: “Well, I don’t know why they mentioned this man so emphatically.”
As soon as my dialogue with the Baron ended, I asked all around, and what I gathered increased my curious interest. They told me that the baron possessed nothing less than a talisman. Yes, an actual talisman: something that, like Balzac’s Magic Skin, allowed him to realize all his desires and to succeed in all his ventures. They told me about his strokes of luck, inexplicable but for the magic influence of the talisman.
The baron was Hungarian, and although he prided himself on descending from Taksony, the glorious Magyar warlord, the truth is that the last scion of the Helynagy family can be said to have languished in poverty, confined to his ancient mountain manor-house. Out of the blue, a series of unusual coincidences concentrated respectable wealth into his hands: not only did several rich relatives opportunely die, leaving him their sole heir, but on renovating the ancient Helynagy castle, he discovered a treasure in currency and jewels.
Then the baron presented himself at the Viennese court, as appropriate to his rank, and there new indications were seen that only some mysterious protection could be the key to such extraordinary luck. If the baron played cards, he was sure to win all the stakes; if he set his eyes on a woman, even the most unapproachable, it was a matter of course that the lady would soften.
He had three duels, and in all three wounded his adversary; the wounds of the last proved fatal, a fact that appeared to be a warning from Destiny to the baron’s future opponents. When he felt the pull of ambition, the doors of the Diet opened wide to him, and the Secretariat of the embassy in Madrid today served him only as a stepping stone to a higher post. It was already whispered that they would name him Minister Plenipotentiary the following winter.
If all this weren’t a tall tale, it was certainly worth discovering what kind of talisman produced such enviable results; and I intended to find out, because I have always held that one must firmly believe in the fantastic and the marvelous, and whoever does not believe–at least from eleven at night until five in the morning–has only one eye in his head, or is half an idiot.
In order to pursue my object, I did everything contrary to what one usually does in such cases; I tried to converse with the baron frequently and frankly, but I didn’t say a single word to him about the talisman. Probably bored with romantic conquests, the baron was not disposed to err on the side of fatuousness, but to be friends, and nothing more than friends, with a woman who treated him with friendly candor. However, for some time my strategy had no effect; the baron was not talkative, and I even perceived in him, more than the insolent happiness of those who hold fortune in their hand, a hint of sadness and anxiety, a sort of black pessimism. On the other hand, his repeated allusions to times past, modest and dark times, and to a sudden rise, to a dazzling streak of happiness, confirmed the current version of events. The announcement that he had been called to Vienna and that his departure was imminent made me lose hope of learning anything more.
I was thinking of this one afternoon, just as the baron was announced. He had undoubtedly come to say goodbye, and he carried in his hand an object that he placed on the nearest side table. Afterwards he sat down, and looked around as if to assure himself that we were alone. I felt a deep excitement, because I divined with quick feminine intuition that he was about to mention the talisman.
“I have come,” said the baron, “to ask of you, Señora, an invaluable favor. You already know that they’re recalling me to my country, and I suspect that the voyage will be short and hasty. I own an object…a sort of relic…and I’m afraid that the hazards of the trip…. In short, I fear that it will be stolen from me, because it is highly coveted, and the common people attribute amazing properties to it. My voyage has been made known; it’s quite possible there is even some plot to take it from me. I entrust it to you; keep it until my return. I will be truly grateful to you.”
So that precious talisman, that rare amulet, was there, two steps away on a piece of furniture, and was going to be left in my hands!
“Be assured that I will keep it for you; it will be well looked after,” I responded vehemently, “but before accepting the responsibility I would like you to tell me what I’m going to safeguard. Although I’ve never asked you indiscreet questions, I know what they say, and I understand that, according to rumor, you possess a miraculous talisman that has granted you all kinds of luck. I won’t take care of it without knowing what it is and if it really merits so much interest.”
The baron hesitated. I saw that he was perplexed and that he hesitated before resolving to speak truthfully and frankly. At last, his sincerity won out, and not without some effort, he said:
“You have touched, dear lady, on my soul’s distress. My pain and my constant torment is the doubt in which I live as to whether I truly possess a treasure of magical virtues, or superstitiously care for a despicable fetish. In the children of this century, the faith in the supernatural is always a tower without a foundation; the least puff of air knocks it to the ground. I think myself ‘happy,’ when actually I am only ‘lucky’: I would be happy if I were completely sure that what is enclosed here is, indeed, a talisman that realizes my desires and staves off the blows of adversity: but this point is one I cannot clarify.
“What can I say? That being very poor and obscure, one afternoon an Israelite from Palestine passed through Helynagy, and insisted on selling me this, assuring me that it would be worth infinite good fortune to me. I bought it, as I had bought a thousand useless trinkets, and I put it in a box. Soon things began to happen to me that changed my luck, though it can all be explained…without the necessity of miracles.”
Here the baron smiled and his smile was contagious.
“Every day,” he continued, recovering his melancholy expression, “we see that a man achieves in any domain what he deserves…and it is common and usual for inexpert duelists to defeat famous swordsmen. If I were convinced that talismans existed, I would peacefully enjoy my prosperity. What embitters me, what depresses me, is the idea that I am living a farce, a lie; and on the day I least expect it, the dismal fate of my lineage and my race will fall on me. Look at the harm from those who envy me, and how the tormenting fear for the future offsets this celebrated good fortune. Anyway, what faith I have is enough for me to beg you to keep this little box safe…because the greatest misfortune of a man is to neither be completely skeptical, nor a firm believer.”
This faithful confession explained the sadness that I had noticed on the baron’s face. His moral state seemed to me worthy of pity, because in the midst of the greatest fortune his soul was eaten away by disbelief, which withers and corrupts everything. The victorious arrogance of great men always derives from confidence in their star, and the Baron Helynagy, incapable of belief, was also incapable of victory.
The baron arose, and picking up the object he had brought, unwrapped a black satin cloth, and I saw a little crystal box with silver embellishments and lock. Lifting the cover, on a linen shroud trimmed with lace, which the baron delicately moved aside, I made out a horrible object: a grotesque blackish figure, about a span in length, looking like the miniature body of a man. My disgusted reaction did not surprise the baron.
“But what is this monstrosity?” I had to ask him.
“This,” replied the diplomat, “is a wonder of Nature, this is not forged or faked; this is the very root of the mandrake, as it forms in the bosom of the earth. The superstition that attributes to the anthropomorphic mandrake the rarest virtues is as ancient as the world. They say that it comes from the blood of those who have been executed, and that is why, in the wee hours of the night, you can hear the mandrake moan like a soul filled with despair. Ah! Make sure, for God’s sake, to keep it always wrapped in a shroud of silk or of linen: this is the only way that the mandrake confers protection.”
“And you believe all this? I exclaimed, watching the baron keenly.
“If only I did!” he answered in a tone so bitter that suddenly I didn’t know what to say.
Soon the baron said goodbye, repeating his request that I take the greatest care, whatever happened, of the box and its contents. He advised me that he would return within a month, and then he would recover what he had entrusted to me.
So the talisman fell into my custody. Obviously, I looked at it more slowly; and I confess that if the entire legend of the mandrake seemed to me a crude fantasy, a vile superstition from the Orient, the strange perfection with which that root imitated a human body still disturbed me. I considered that it might be some counterfeit figure, but the sight of it set me straight, convincing me that human hands had no part in the phenomenon, and the homunculus was natural, the root itself as it had been pulled from the earth. I questioned several truthful people who had resided for long periods in Palestine about the matter, and they assured me that it’s impossible to fabricate a mandrake, and so shepherds from the mountains of Gilead and the plains of Jericho gather and sell it as Nature has formed it.
No doubt it was the peculiarity of the case, for me entirely unfamiliar, that in an evil hour excited my fantasy. The truth is that I began to feel fear, or at least an invincible repulsion, towards the damned talisman. I had been keeping it with my jewels in the safe in my bedroom; and I tell you that a feverish insomnia has overcome me, and in my delirium I think that the blasted mandrake, when all is silent, will emit one of its dismal moans, capable of freezing the blood in my veins. And the most insignificant noise awakens me, trembling, and at times the wind that shakes the glass and agitates the curtains seems to me to be the mandrake that laments with voices from the other world….
Well, I wouldn’t let myself endure such hogwash, and I decided to remove it from my room and to take it to a display case in the living room, where I kept coins, medals, and some antique junk. Here is the origin of my eternal remorse, of the regret that will never leave me as long as I live. Because fate would have it that a new servant, tempted by the coins enclosed in the cabinet, broke the glass, and on taking the coins and the trinkets, also carried away the little box with the talisman. It was a terrible blow to me.
I notified the police; the police moved heaven and earth. The thief turned up, yes sir, he turned up; they recovered the coins, the box, and the shroud…but my man confessed that he had thrown the talisman into a sewer drain, and there was no way to find it, even at the cost of the most exhaustive and best-paid investigations in the world.
* * *
“And the Baron Helynagy?” I asked the lady who had related to me this singular tale.
“He died in a train collision as he was returning to Spain,” she answered, paler than usual, and turning her face away.
“So then that was an authentic talisman…?”
“God save us!” she responded. “Don’t you want to concede anything to chance?”
Collected in Cuentos Sacroprofanos (1899)
First published in El Imparcial, 8 January 1894.
Translated by Nina Zumel