The Convalescents’ Tea
(El té de las convalecientes)
by Emilia Pardo Bazán
They were still a bit frail, with a touch of haze in their dull eyes; but already they were eager to jump back in the ring and enjoy their youth. They had seen the terror of death up close, and it seemed miraculous to have escaped its clutches.
They were young ladies of the best society, with laughing and lively futures of unlimited promise, surprised in the middle of their lives of pleasant frivolities and hopes of love and happiness by the terrible epidemic, which chose its victims from those in the prime of life, as if it scorned the elderly, death’s sure and soon prey. Some had suffered bronchopneumonia, with its delirium and cruel suffocation; others had vomited blood by the mouthful; yet others began to show symptoms of meningitis….
And just as it seemed they were about to cross the black door and the mysterious river that sleeps between banks lined with asphodel and henbane, whose waters fall from the oar without any echo, the evil began to recede, normality was reappearing. The interesting little patients bloomed again, so to speak — not with all the vitality that one would want, but like those languid and drooping roses that slowly revive in a tall glass of water.
They all had friends among the Reaper’s harvest. Their families hid this from them early on, so as not to depress their spirits; but inevitably, they came to know. What followed was something quite human and natural: the convalescents wept, but not too much, because the thought of one’s own well-being quickly brings solace for the losses of others. This involuntary selfishness is one of the defensive mechanisms of our poor human nature.
And when the convalescents were able to leave home, a lady named Kriloff, a kind and distinguished foreigner who was Secretary of the Russian Embassy, had the idea to have a tea party for them: a white tea, just for young ladies. It would be a small party, limited to those who had escaped danger, and a half dozen friends who hadn’t suffered any ills. She stipulated (as had been socially acceptable for years) that the mothers not accompany their daughters, but would be content to pick them up around eight.
The apartment where the Russian lived was elegantly arranged for the little party. A delicious and insinuating perfume emanated from the anteroom, which was adorned with palm trees and flowers artistically placed, not with the cloying profusion that characterizes formal decoration, but with tasteful grace. The walls were adorned with rare fabrics and Oriental objects, Byzantine enamel statuettes, icons on gold backgrounds, with black faces and robes encrusted with turquoise and pearls. On the furniture, inlaid with silver and mother of pearl, could be seen ivory carvings, Persian ceramics, and weapons whose hilts were embellished with coral and diamonds. The tea service was prepared on a little octagonal table of exquisite marquetry, and the colorful tablecloths were embroidered with gold. Everything was original and curious in its exoticism, and the young women, delighting in the novel sensations, whispered their admiration.
La Kriloff first offered them long Oriental cigars on a copper tray with steel inlay. Though a few were squeamish, most of the convalescents lit them gracefully, exhaling spirals of blue smoke; nor did they refuse the caviar sandwiches or the rose petal jam. One of the guests, Natalia Torrente, accepted a sip of vodka, that fearsome Russian spirit, father of madness. The others, animated by her example, began to discuss whether or not to try the potent liquor.
“Vodka can’t do you any harm,” opined la Krillof, shaking her riotous blond hair, so pale it was almost white. “I’ve heard eminent doctors say that alcohol is a remedy for the flu. But perhaps vodka is a little harsh for your throats. I can offer you kirsch or port…”
Natalia Torrente, the determined sportswoman, didn’t find the vodka harsh; to prove it, she poured herself two or three servings, in little glasses with filigreed silver trim. It was agreed afterward that each and every guest at the tea party made the most of the Russian’s medical advice, some more and some less; and that the thimbles of vermiculated Bohemian crystal were never seen full for an instant. The scene that followed the tea in truth had no other possible explanation except a slight state of… what shall we call it?… mental disorientation, brought on by the alcohol.
It happened that one of the convalescents, pretty Toria Fuenseca, began to ask la Kriloff whether it was true that she knew how to evoke spirits. The reply was an enigmatic smile; and another convalescent, Rosa Maria Mendoza, clapped her hands and implored the Russian:
“I’ve also heard that you predict the future… For heaven’s sake, tell us ours!”
La Kriloff’s expression changed. The smile and amenity of the hostess who had welcomed and regaled them gave way to a troubled expression on her singular countenance, haloed by her thick platinum hair.
“It’s an experience,” she said, “that I tried once; but… believe me, it’s better to leave Fate wrapped in its veils. You never want to know the future!”
Everyone jumped to their feet. Excited and vehement, they gathered around the diplomat.
“Oh, my God! It would be so nice of you! The future is exactly what interests us! The future!”
The Russian furrowed her brow; she shrugged her shoulders, as if to say, they asked for it, and lifting up a tapestry embroidered with impossible birds and flowers, she ushered the young women into a smaller compartment, illuminated by a green glass lantern that gave off a glow like that of fireflies in summer. In such light, their faces took on a spectral tint. The back wall of the chamber was an enormous mirror, framed only by the silks of the double curtain that covered it, which the Russian pulled back.
The young women felt a faint chill to suddenly see themselves so discolored, with such shadowed eyes, in the glass, which resembled a murky lake crossed by moonlit reflections.
“Silence!” the Russian ordered softly. “Take turns approaching the mirror, one at a time, while the others stand aside, facing the door!”
The first to take a turn was Natalia Torrente… And there in the depths of the lake, what she saw made her give a high-pitched shriek: on a lonely road, an overturned car, from under which a group of men were pulling out a woman covered in blood, like a limp doll, with broken limbs… Natalia, horrified, recognized herself…
Nervously, Rosa Maria Mendoza came forward. It took some time for the vague, smoke-like image to become clear; but finally she saw herself surrounded by three beautiful children, two boys and a girl, as cute as love. And while she rapturously contemplated these children of hers, her own flesh and blood — Such angels! Such stars! — a skeletal, disembodied hand emerged from the depths of the lake, snatched the children by the throat one by one, and released them, shattered like broken dolls. She saw herself fight, fight, trying to detach the horrible hand from their tender necks…. but she couldn’t, she couldn’t, and the tears rolled from her eyes, in trickles, to the floor…
As Maria Rosa withdrew, trembling, Toria Fuenseca excitedly came forward. Toria Fuenseca, who, as everyone knew, was deeply in love with Enrique Ambas Castillas; a wedding was considered likely once the girl completely recovered her health and strength. …. What would the mirror say? No one knows what it said, because Toria kept it to herself. But the events tell all: Iñigo’s marriage a few months later, to a millionairess from the lands where the streets are paved in gold. At that moment, they only saw that Toria stepped back from the cursed mirror and fell with a violent convulsion. And la Kriloff, as she carried the girl from the mysterious room and made her inhale an antispasmodic, repeated:
“I told you… It isn’t wise to consult Fate! The future always holds the worst… For the record, I was against this….”
The entire episode was extremely distressing. The young women swore that they’d had a wonderful time, that nothing could be more amusing than that tea party. But it was a fact that two or three of them were left sickly and downcast, and that the next day Toria had a serious relapse; it was a miracle they were able to save her. As a result, there was talk against the Secretary, and certain circles behaved rather coldly to her. Nonetheless, several ladies of the highest ranks privately asked to consult her mirror.
Published in La Esfera, extraordinary number, 1919.
Translated by Nina Zumel