Exculpation

Exculpation
(Eximente)
by Emilia Pardo Bazán

Federico Molina’s suicide was one no one could explain. Hypotheses were advanced, taking into account the usual causes of these sorts of acts, so tragically frequent that they have their own section in the Press. People spoke, as they always speak, of green baize, dark eyes, incurable disease, money lost and unrecovered; in short, of all the usual things. But no one could settle on any of these reasons, and Federico took his secret to the forgotten niche in which his remains rest, while his poor soul….

Don’t you think about the destiny of souls after they emerge from their clay, like an electric spark from coal? Do you truly never think about what is never spoken of? Do you believe so firmly, like Espronceda, in the peace of the grave?

Prince Hamlet didn’t believe, and so preferred to suffer the evils that surrounded him, rather than seek out unknown ones in the undiscovered country from which no traveler returns.

Perhaps Federico Molina didn’t consider this serious drawback of his somber decision. We don’t know, we will never know, what Federico believed–not even what he doubted–because Hamlet, traumatized by the apparition of that vengeful shade, wasn’t saved from taking his own life by his faith, but by his doubt: the possibility of “perchance to dream”….

A coincidence of the kind that seems contrived, but couldn’t be made up, brought into my hands something resembling a journal: notes jotted down by Federico, bearing on the first page the date of a year just before the drama. The key to his misfortune was enclosed in an elegant album bound in Russian leather, with the intertwined initials F. M. in gold. It was sold to an antiques dealer at auction, then acquired by a bookbinding enthusiast, who carefully tears out the written or printed contents of his acquisitions and keeps only the covers, having amassed a superb–shall I say library?–of book bindings, and whom I have begged to give me what was inside, since he values only the outside—and perhaps he’s a wise man. Thus, I was able to penetrate into the psyche of the suicide, and I don’t believe anyone can interpret the evidence that I have uncovered and compiled any differently than I have.

* * *

Always the same! The sensation persists.

How did this begin?

Here’s the thing; I can’t say. The infection was so imperceptible that I hardly remember what came before.

I don’t see any cause, nor a definite origin. I haven’t received, to my recollection, a shock or a fright; I haven’t suffered any deep or sudden and overwhelming emotion that justifies such a singular state of mind.

Of mind? And also of body. I notice that my system has been changing; each day I mark the ravages of the evil in my organism.

The decline of my faculties is gradual, deep.

My intelligence is disturbed, my brain doesn’t regulate, my heart is a broken clock. I don’t even know if I will be able to tell exactly what is happening to me.

I’ll try…

It seems to me that the origin of all this has been the bad habit of reading at night, in bed, into the late hours.

The door is closed: I myself, before going to bed, turned the key twice. The calm of one of the least noisy neighborhoods in Madrid enfolds my bedroom and the entire house like a quilted blanket. Security is absolute: from time immemorial no one has ever heard of a robbery nor house break-in here; only squalid petty theft. Nothing dangerous threatens me. I am vigilant; I have at hand my fully loaded revolver, and my servant, who sleeps nearby, is faithful and resolute; I can count on him at all times.

This being the case, why, in the middle of reading, do I pause with my book open, my eyes staring into space, my hands icy, the roots of my hair tingling, my stomach in knots?

What do I hear, what do I see, what do I sense around me?

The room is beautiful, comfortable, with nothing that can insanely incite the fancy. It contains only rich modern furniture, a long daybed on which I take siestas, low seats, my nightstand, a bookcase, a small desk. There are neither alcoves nor curtains behind which imagination can traitorously conjure hidden shapes….

The upholstery colors are cheerful; the background, bright. From premonition, no doubt, I have hung on the wall only pictures with placid themes, avoiding martyred saints, scenes of cruelty and blood. In the midst of such elements of serenity, I must say it, I must acknowledge it: I am afraid! A horrible fear, a fear that keeps me from breathing, from relaxing, from living.

The last noises of the city have nearly subsided; as the drowsy tranquility that brings on sweet dreams begins to establish itself, a nervous insomnia overpowers me. An ironic voice murmurs inside my skull, beyond my hearing: “You will not sleep, you will not sleep!”. And this is something strange: I find myself in the company of someone, I don’t know who, but someone settled here, at my side, so near that I seem to hear the rhythm of their breathing and to notice how their shadow glides smoothly, fleetingly, on the white wall facing me.

This mysterious someone is never in front of me. I feel them at my back. Where? There is no free space between the bed and the wall. Without a doubt, anything is possible with an apparition; the wall recedes to make room for its body, and if I suddenly turn around now, I will see the being that threatens never to abandon me. But I don’t dare; I will never dare. I think it is behind me; but I am irresolute, and I fear that it will reach out a hand, which I imagine cold as marble, and will pass it slowly across my brow, or cover my eyes with it….

Regressing to childhood fears, I hurriedly put out the light and cover my face with the folds of the bedsheet to defend myself from that horrible caress.

Shall I be such a coward? Ashamed, I begin to recount the acts of valor from my service record…. Like all the world, I have had my half dozen affairs of honor, and, what is less common, in one of them I left my adversary badly wounded, a fine rout. I was on the verge of drowning in San Sebastian, and I don’t recall that my soul shrank. I kept vigil over my cousin, sick with the most catching typhus, and it didn’t occur to me to fear contagion. I have shown indifference in the face of danger, and I have no lack of friends who say that I’ve got guts. The testimony of my conscience shouts that I am not timid.

And nonetheless, this is fear, vile fear. There is no lack of symptoms: the chattering of teeth, the cold sweat, the buzzing in my ears, the wild palpitations of my heart, which suddenly seizes as if it were going to stop beating.

The watch on the nightstand weaves its tiny tick-tock with rhythmic regularity, and my blood, first curdled and then violently agitated by the transformation of fear, churns stronger than ever and rushes in a torrential stream, causing me a kind of congestion. Behind me I now clearly discern a slow breathing, a sigh of fatigue, a perceptible stirring of the air, and I cower, and cannot manage to sit up, so I remain this way, always hearing the breath from another world that engulfs me in long, subtle waves….

I have gone for consultations. “Travel, exercise, eat healthy; this is no more than the effect of nerves and imagination.” As if nerves and imagination were not part of us! As if we knew what those words–nerves, imagination–meant!

I have traveled; my journey has lasted three months. In the hotel rooms, every night without fail, the same terror visits me; I sense lying in wait behind me the same being, whom I can neither name nor describe, since I don’t have even a remote idea of its form: I am ignorant of where it comes from. I only know that it is there, that its sepulchral breath brushes my face and penetrates to my marrow, filling it with poison.

One night, in a fit of rage, I took my revolver and fired it behind me, where I felt that evil breath. People came rushing; I pretended to be afraid of thieves. How could I explain? They wouldn’t understand…

* * *

“This must end,” it says on one of the last pages of the journal. “I will go mad, because, after the shot, I again heard the breathing, I again felt that there was someone there, and it is impossible to resist for so long a torment that I can’t even admit to.”

There’s no doubt that after scrawling this entry, the insurmountable fear did its job, and Federico Molina did not shoot a shadow.


First published in Blanco y Negro, No. 714, 1905

Collected in Interiores (1907).

Translated by Nina Zumel

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.