A Ripper of Yesteryear
(Un destripador de antaño)
Parts III and IV
by Emilia Pardo Bazán
– III –
In that back room of the apothecary shop, where, according to the authoritative account of Jacoba de Alberte, no human being entered, Don Custodio was in the habit most nights of having a chat with a canon of the Holy Metropolitan Church, a fellow student of pharmaceutical arts, an older man, dry as a piece of kindling, with a ready smile and a great fondness for tobacco. He was the constant friend and intimate confidant of Don Custodio, and if the horrendous crimes that the common people attributed to the apothecary were true, no one would be more appropriate to keep the secret of such abominations than the Canon Don Lucas Llorente, who was the quintessence of mystery and of concealment from the masses.
Silence, absolute reserve in Llorente took on the proportions and character of a mania. He revealed nothing of his life or activities, even the slightest and most innocent. The canon’s motto was: “Let no one know anything about you.” And he even added (in the privacy of the shop’s back room): “Everything that people near us discover about what we do or think turns into a lethal and damaging weapon. It’s better for them to invent things, rather than build on the ground that we ourselves offer them.”
Due to Llorente’s nature, and their long-standing friendship, Don Custodio placed absolute trust in Llorente. He would speak with no one else about certain serious matters, and consulted only with him on dangerous and difficult cases. One night, as the rain came ominously down in buckets, and sporadically thunder rumbled and lightning flashed, Llorente found the apothecary agitated, nervous, nearly frantic. As the canon entered, the other man rushed towards him, grabbed his hands, and dragged him into the depths of the back room, where, in place of the dreadful trapdoor and the bottomless well, there were cupboards, bookcases, a couch, and other equally inoffensive things. He said to the canon in an anguished voice:
“Oh, Llorente, my friend! How I regret having always followed your advice, and added fuel to ignorant gossip! From the start I should have refuted the absurd stories and dispelled the stupid rumors. But you advised me to do nothing, absolutely nothing, to change the image that the common people had formed of me, because of my retiring lifestyle, because of the trips abroad to study advances in my profession, because of my bachelorhood, and because of the cursed coincidence (here the apothecary faltered a little) that two housemaids—young women—had to leave home secretly, without telling anyone why, because… but tell me, what does the public care about their motives?
“You kept telling me: ‘Custodio, my friend, leave things alone; don’t waste any effort trying to set fools straight, because in the end you’ll fail, and they’ll misinterpret your efforts to address their concerns. So they believe that you make your ointments from dead people’s fat and are paid dearly for it—fine; let them, let them bray. You sell them good remedies, the latest modern pharmaceuticals, which you’ve made sure are the most advanced in those foreign countries that you’ve visited. You cure their illnesses, and the imbeciles believe that it’s by magic. Of all the multitudinous nonsense invented and propagated by the damn liberals today, the worst is this idea of ‘enlightening the masses.’ May God enlighten you!
“‘The people can’t be enlightened. They are, and will forever be, a bunch of dolts, a pack of donkeys. If you present them with the natural and the rational, they won’t believe in it. They crave the strange, the outlandish, the marvelous and impossible. The more outrageous the nonsense, the faster it’s swallowed. And so, Custodio my friend, you should stop marching in the procession, and if you can, steal the flag and lead it instead. This world is a complicated dance.'”
“Certainly,” the canon interrupted, taking out his little snuffbox and pinching some of the powder between his fingertips. “I probably said this to you; and what harm has come to you from my advice? I believe the shop’s cashbox is nearly full to bursting, and you recently bought some very beautiful property in Valeiro.”
“I bought it, I bought it; but at what cost!” exclaimed the apothecary. “If you only knew what happened to me today! Go ahead, guess. What do you think happened to me? No matter how much you tax your mind to imagine the worst atrocity, you won’t come up with this, three of you together would never come up with this.”
“What was it?”
“You’ll see, you’ll see! This takes the cake. Today, at an hour when I was completely alone, a village woman came into the shop; she had come some days before with another woman to ask me for an asthma remedy. A tall, hard-faced woman, unibrowed, with a prominent jaw, a flat brow and eyes like coal. An imposing type, believe me. She said she wanted to speak to me secretly, and after she saw that she was alone with me in a safe place, it turned out—Here’s the best part!— It turned out that she had come to offer me the fat of a young girl, her niece, just of marriageable age, a virgin, blond; with all the required conditions, in sum, to make her fat suitable for the remedies that I customarily make.
“What do you say to that, Canon? This is where we are. Out there, it’s an everyday thing for me to disembowel young girls, and from the fat that I take from them I compound these marvelous remedies—poof!—capable of bringing the dead back to life. The woman assured me of it. Do you see? Do you understand the stain that has fallen upon me? I am the terror of the villages, the horror of young women, and the most loathsome and perverted being that the imagination could conceive.”
A distant and deep clap of thunder accompanied the apothecary’s last words. The canon laughed, rubbing his dry hands and happily shaking his head. He seemed to have achieved a great and desired triumph.
“I told you: do you see it, man? Do you see how they are still more bestial, animalistic, monstrous, and slavish than even I thought? Do you see how what occurs to them is always the greatest atrocity, the grossest folly, and the laziest bullshit? You are the simplest, most good-natured and peaceful man on the planet. You have a tender heart; you interest yourselves in other people’s troubles, even though they don’t affect you at all. You are incapable of killing a fly and think only of your books, your studies, your chemicals. All this is enough for those unmitigated savages to brand you a horrible monster, a killer, guilty of all manner of crimes and abominations.”
“But who would have invented these slanders, Llorente?”
“Who? Universal stupidity; mixed with universal malice, as well. The common people are the beast of the Apocalypse, believe me, even though St. John doesn’t say it so baldly.”
“Fine! That’s how it shall be; but from now on, I won’t let myself be slandered anymore. I don’t want that; no sir. See for yourself what a struggle it is! As soon as I get careless, a girl dies because of me! That bloodthirsty fiend, so willing to kill her. Consider what she kept saying to me:
“‘I’ll kill her and leave her in the forest, and say that the wolves ate her. They come around a lot at this time of the year, and you’ll see for sure, by the next day she’ll look like she’s been eaten.’
“Oh, Canon! If you could have seen how hard it was to convince that mule that I don’t extract the fat from anyone, I don’t even dream of it! No matter how much I kept saying to her, ‘This is an outrage that’s going around; a defamation, madness, an insult; and when I figure out who is spreading it, I’ll disembowel them,’ the woman stood firm as a post, and stubbornly repeated:
“‘Sir, two onzas, nothing more. Everything will be kept quiet, everything. For two onzas, I’ll get the fat. You’ll never find such a good deal.’
“What an evil viper! The Furies of Hell must have faces like hers. I tell you it was a hard victory to persuade her. She didn’t want to leave. I had to drive her out with a stick.”
“Let’s hope you’ve persuaded her!” declared the canon, suddenly worried and agitated, twirling the snuffbox between his fingers. “I’m afraid that you’ve made a real blunder. Oh, Custodio! You’ve made a mistake. I’ll take my oath that you’ve made a mistake.”
“What are you saying, man; are you a priest, or the devil?” exclaimed the apothecary, springing from his seat in alarm.
“I’m saying that you’ve made a mistake. No, that you’ve done a foolish thing to suppose, as always, that in those brutes there’s even a spark of natural reason, or that it’s proper or helpful to tell them the truth, and argue it with them, and enlighten them with the lamp of intellect. By that time, probably, the girl will be in heaven, as dead as my grandmother. Tomorrow morning, or the day after, they’ll bring you the fat wrapped in a cloth… You’ll see!”
“Quiet, quiet… I can’t listen to that. It’s too much for a human mind. What should I have done? By God, don’t drive me mad!”
“What should you have done? The opposite of what’s reasonable, the opposite of what’s truthful, the opposite of what you would do with me or with any other person in their right mind who, although perhaps as bad as the rabble, is somewhat less idiotic. Tell them that yes, you have bought fat for two onzas, or three, or one hundred…”
“Wait, let me finish. But that any fat extracted by them is useless. That you have to perform the operation in person, and consequently, they must bring the girl to you, healthy and fresh. And when you have her securely in your custody, then we will send out the hand of Justice to apprehend and punish the villains. Don’t you see clearly that this is a child that they want to harm, that she’s in their way, maybe because she’s an extra mouth to feed, or maybe because she has something and they’re anxious to inherit it? Hasn’t it occurred to you that such an atrocity is decided in a day, but it’s conceived and fermented in the mind sometimes for long years? The girl is under sentence of death. You can believe that it’s just a matter of time….”
And the canon brandished the snuffbox, with an expressive gesture across his throat.
“Canon, are you finished with me? How will I sleep tonight? I’m saddling the mare right now and heading to Tornelos.”
A startling and nearby clap of thunder answered the apothecary that his resolution was impractical. The wind moaned and the rain erupted furiously, pounding on the windows.
“And you contend,” Don Custodio asked despondently, “that they are capable of such iniquity?”
“Of anything. And of inventing much, much more that we still don’t know. Ignorance is invincible; it’s the sibling of crime!”
“And yet,” argued the apothecary, “you advocate the perpetuity of ignorance.”
“Oh, my friend!” responded the obscurantist, “Ignorance is an evil. But evil is necessary and eternal, part of the natural order in this sinful world! We will never see ourselves free from either evil or death.”
What a night the honest apothecary passed, considered as he was by the populace to be the most horrifying monster imaginable. Why, two centuries before he might have been prosecuted for witchcraft!
At dawn he threw a saddle onto the white mare that he rode on his excursions to the countryside, and took the road to Tornelos. The mill would serve as a signpost to quickly find what he was searching for.
The sun began to climb in the heavens, which after the storm shone clear and cloudless, with a radiant brightness. The grasses were already soaking up the rain that had covered them, and the raindrops that had spilled over the brambles during the night were drying up. The wet pines exhaled a faint aroma that began to permeate the cool, diaphanous, transparent air. A magpie, speckled black and white, alighted almost at the feet of Don Custodio’s horse. A jackrabbit emerged from out of the thicket, graceful and playful; startled, it dashed in front of the apothecary.
Everything announced one of those splendid, incomparably calm winter days that in Galicia usually follow tempestuous nights; and the apothecary, suffused by the joy of the atmosphere, began to believe that everything from the evening before was a delusion, a tragic nightmare, or his friend’s extravagance. How could anyone kill anyone else, and especially like that, in such a barbaric and inhuman manner? Madness, nonsense, the canon’s imaginings. Bah! In the mill, at this hour, they would certainly be getting ready to grind the grain. From the Shrine of St Minia, driven by the wind, came the silvery peal of the bell, announcing the first Mass. All was peace, love, and sweet serenity in the countryside.
Don Custodio felt as happy and exhilarated as a little boy, and his thoughts changed course. If the lass was pretty and humble, he would take her home with him, freeing her from her tragic slavery, and the danger and neglect in which she lived. And if she turned out to be good, loyal, unaffected, modest—not like those two crazy housemaids, one of whom had escaped to Zamora with some sergeant, and the other led astray by a student, until finally what happened had happened, and she was obliged to go into hiding—if the little milleress was not like them, but on the other hand developed into the gentle sort of woman that the inveterate bachelor sometimes dreamed of: then, who knows, Custodio? You’re still not so old that….
Captivated by these thoughts, he gave the mare her head, and didn’t realize that he had entered deeper into the wilderness, deeper, into the most tangled and rugged regions. By the time he noticed, he had already traveled a good distance from the road. He turned around and retraced his steps, but with little luck, for he got lost again, finding himself in a wild, craggy locale. Without knowing why, a strange anguish oppressed his heart.
Suddenly, right there, beneath the rays of the sun, of the joyful, beautiful sun that reconciles humanity with themselves and with existence, he spotted a mound, a dead body, that of a young girl. Her bent head revealed the tremendous wound on her neck. A coarse mantelo covered the mutilation of her lacerated and exposed entrails. There was blood everywhere, already diluted by the rain; trampled grass and underbrush; and all around them, the grand silence of the high mountains and the solitary pine forests.
– IV –
Pepona was hanged in La Coruña. Juan Ramón was sentenced to prison. But the apothecary’s intervention in this criminal drama was enough for the common people to believe him a ripper even more than before, and a ripper who had the ability to make the just pay in place of the sinners, accusing others of his own murderous assaults. Fortunately, there was no populist movement in Compostela at the time, otherwise the apothecary shop could easily have been set on fire, which would have made the Canon Llorente, on seeing his theories of universal, irremediable stupidity confirmed, rub his hands.
mantelo… An apron, or overskirt. See slide 4 of this presentation on traditional Galician costume. ↩
Collected in Un destripador de antaño: (historias y cuentos regionales), 1900.
First published in La España Moderna, January 1890.
Translated by Nina Zumel