Noli Me Tangere: Chapter 1 – A Social Gathering
On the last of October Don Santiago de los Santos, popularly known as Capitan Tiago, gave a dinner. In spite of the fact that, contrary to his usual custom, he had made the announcement only that afternoon, it was already the sole topic of conversation in Binondo and adjacent districts, and even in the Walled City, for at that time Capitan Tiago was considered one of the most hospitable of men, and it was well known that his house, like his country, shut its doors against nothing except commerce and all new or bold ideas. Like an electric shock the announcement ran through the world of parasites, bores, and hangers-on, whom God in His infinite bounty creates and so kindly multiplies in Manila. Some looked at once for shoe-polish, others for buttons and cravats, but all were especially concerned about how to greet the master of the house in the most familiar tone, in order to create an atmosphere of ancient friendship or, if occasion should arise, to excuse a late arrival.
This dinner was given in a house on Calle Anloague, and although we do not remember the number we will describe it in such a way that it may still be recognized, provided the earthquakes have not destroyed it. We do not believe that its owner has had it torn down, for such labors are generally entrusted to God or nature–which Powers hold the contracts also for many of the projects of our government. It is a rather large building, in the style of many in the country, and fronts upon the arm of the Pasig which is known to some as the Binondo River, and which, like all the streams in Manila, plays the varied rÃ´les of bath, sewer, laundry, fishery, means of transportation and communication, and even drinking water if the Chinese water-carrier finds it convenient. It is worthy of note that in the distance of nearly a mile this important artery of the district, where traffic is most dense and movement most deafening, can boast of only one wooden bridge, which is out of repair on one side for six months and impassable on the other for the rest of the year, so that during the hot season the ponies take advantage of this permanent status quo to jump off the bridge into the water, to the great surprise of the abstracted mortal who may be dozing inside the carriage or philosophizing upon the progress of the age.
The house of which we are speaking is somewhat low and not exactly correct in all its lines: whether the architect who built it was afflicted with poor eyesight or whether the earthquakes and typhoons have twisted it out of shape, no one can say with certainty. A wide staircase with green newels and carpeted steps leads from the tiled entrance up to the main floor between rows of flower-pots set upon pedestals of motley-colored and fantastically decorated Chinese porcelain. Since there are neither porters nor servants who demand invitation cards, we will go in, O you who read this, whether friend or foe, if you are attracted by the strains of the orchestra, the lights, or the suggestive rattling of dishes, knives, and forks, and if you wish to see what such a gathering is like in the distant Pearl of the Orient. Gladly, and for my own comfort, I should spare you this description of the house, were it not of great importance, since we mortals in general are very much like tortoises: we are esteemed and classified according to our shells; in this and still other respects the mortals of the Philippines in particular also resemble tortoises.
If we go up the stairs, we immediately find ourselves in a spacious hallway, called there, for some unknown reason, the caida, which tonight serves as the dining-room and at the same time affords a place for the orchestra. In the center a large table profusely and expensively decorated seems to beckon to the hanger-on with sweet promises, while it threatens the bashful maiden, the simple dalaga, with two mortal hours in the company of strangers whose language and conversation usually have a very restricted and special character.
Contrasted with these terrestrial preparations are the motley paintings on the walls representing religious matters, such as “Purgatory,” “Hell,” “The Last Judgment,” “The Death of the Just,” and “The Death of the Sinner.”
At the back of the room, fastened in a splendid and elegant framework, in the Renaissance style, possibly by ArÃ©valo, is a glass case in which are seen the figures of two old women. The inscription on this reads: “Our Lady of Peace and Prosperous Voyages, who is worshiped in Antipolo, visiting in the disguise of a beggar the holy and renowned Capitana Inez during her sickness.”  While the work reveals little taste or art, yet it possesses in compensation an extreme realism, for to judge from the yellow and bluish tints of her face the sick woman seems to be already a decaying corpse, and the glasses and other objects, accompaniments of long illness, are so minutely reproduced that even their contents may be distinguished. In looking at these pictures, which excite the appetite and inspire gay bucolic ideas, one may perhaps be led to think that the malicious host is well acquainted with the characters of the majority of those who are to sit at his table and that, in order to conceal his own way of thinking, he has hung from the ceiling costly Chinese lanterns; bird-cages without birds; red, green, and blue globes of frosted glass; faded air-plants; and dried and inflated fishes, which they call botetes. The view is closed on the side of the river by curious wooden arches, half Chinese and half European, affording glimpses of a terrace with arbors and bowers faintly lighted by paper lanterns of many colors.
In the sala, among massive mirrors and gleaming chandeliers, the guests are assembled. Here, on a raised platform, stands a grand piano of great price, which tonight has the additional virtue of not being played upon. Here, hanging on the wall, is an oil-painting of a handsome man in full dress, rigid, erect, straight as the tasseled cane he holds in his stiff, ring-covered fingers–the whole seeming to say, “Ahem! See how well dressed and how dignified I am!” The furnishings of the room are elegant and perhaps uncomfortable and unhealthful, since the master of the house would consider not so much the comfort and health of his guests as his own ostentation, “A terrible thing is dysentery,” he would say to them, “but you are sitting in European chairs and that is something you don’t find every day.”
This room is almost filled with people, the men being separated from the women as in synagogues and Catholic churches. The women consist of a number of Filipino and Spanish maidens, who, when they open their mouths to yawn, instantly cover them with their fans and who murmur only a few words to each other, any conversation ventured upon dying out in monosyllables like the sounds heard in a house at night, sounds made by the rats and lizards. Is it perhaps the different likenesses of Our Lady hanging on the walls that force them to silence and a religious demeanor or is it that the women here are an exception?
A cousin of Capitan Tiago, a sweet-faced old woman, who speaks Spanish quite badly, is the only one receiving the ladies. To offer to the Spanish ladies a plate of cigars and buyos, to extend her hand to her countrywomen to be kissed, exactly as the friars do,–this is the sum of her courtesy, her policy. The poor old lady soon became bored, and taking advantage of the noise of a plate breaking, rushed precipitately away, muttering, “JesÃºs! Just wait, you rascals!” and failed to reappear.
The men, for their part, are making more of a stir. Some cadets in one corner are conversing in a lively manner but in low tones, looking around now and then to point out different persons in the room while they laugh more or less openly among themselves. In contrast, two foreigners dressed in white are promenading silently from one end of the room to the other with their hands crossed behind their backs, like the bored passengers on the deck of a ship. All the interest and the greatest animation proceed from a group composed of two priests, two civilians, and a soldier who are seated around a small table on which are seen bottles of wine and English biscuits.
The soldier, a tall, elderly lieutenant with an austere countenance– a Duke of Alva straggling behind in the roster of the Civil Guard– talks little, but in a harsh, curt way. One of the priests, a youthful Dominican friar, handsome, graceful, polished as the gold-mounted eyeglasses he wears, maintains a premature gravity. He is the curate of Binondo and has been in former years a professor in the college of San Juan de Letran, where he enjoyed the reputation of being a consummate dialectician, so much so that in the days when the sons of Guzman still dared to match themselves in subtleties with laymen, the able disputant B. de Luna had never been able either to catch or to confuse him, the distinctions made by Fray Sibyla leaving his opponent in the situation of a fisherman who tries to catch eels with a lasso. The Dominican says little, appearing to weigh his words.
Quite in contrast, the other priest, a Franciscan, talks much and gesticulates more. In spite of the fact that his hair is beginning to turn gray, he seems to be preserving well his robust constitution, while his regular features, his rather disquieting glance, his wide jaws and herculean frame give him the appearance of a Roman noble in disguise and make us involuntarily recall one of those three monks of whom Heine tells in his “Gods in Exile,” who at the September equinox in the Tyrol used to cross a lake at midnight and each time place in the hand of the poor boatman a silver piece, cold as ice, which left him full of terror. But Fray Damaso is not so mysterious as they were. He is full of merriment, and if the tone of his voice is rough like that of a man who has never had occasion to correct himself and who believes that whatever he says is holy and above improvement, still his frank, merry laugh wipes out this disagreeable impression and even obliges us to pardon his showing to the room bare feet and hairy legs that would make the fortune of a Mendieta in the Quiapo fairs.
One of the civilians is a very small man with a black beard, the only thing notable about him being his nose, which, to judge from its size, ought not to belong to him. The other is a rubicund youth, who seems to have arrived but recently in the country. With him the Franciscan is carrying on a lively discussion.
“You’ll see,” the friar was saying, “when you’ve been here a few months you’ll be convinced of what I say. It’s one thing to govern in Madrid and another to live in the Philippines.”
“I, for example,” continued Fray Damaso, raising his voice still higher to prevent the other from speaking, “I, for example, who can look back over twenty-three years of bananas and morisqueta, know whereof I speak. Don’t come at me with theories and fine speeches, for I know the Indian. Mark well that the moment I arrived in the country I was assigned to a toxin, small it is true, but especially devoted to agriculture. I didn’t understand Tagalog very well then, but I was, soon confessing the women, and we understood one another and they came to like me so well that three years later, when I was transferred to another and larger town, made vacant by the death of the native curate, all fell to weeping, they heaped gifts upon me, they escorted me with music–”
“But that only goes to show–”
“Wait, wait! Don’t be so hasty! My successor remained a shorter time, and when he left he had more attendance, more tears, and more music. Yet he had been more given to whipping and had raised the fees in the parish to almost double.”
“But you will allow me–”
“But that isn’t all. I stayed in the town of San Diego twenty years and it has been only a few months since I left it.”
Here he showed signs of chagrin.
“Twenty years, no one can deny, are more than sufficient to get acquainted with a town. San Diego has a population of six thousand souls and I knew every inhabitant as well as if I had been his mother and wet-nurse. I knew in which foot this one was lame, where the shoe pinched that one, who was courting that girl, what affairs she had had and with whom, who was the real father of the child, and so on–for I was the confessor of every last one, and they took care not to fail in their duty. Our host, Santiago, will tell you whether I am speaking the truth, for he has a lot of land there and that was where we first became friends. Well then, you may see what the Indian is: when I left I was escorted by only a few old women and some of the tertiary brethren–and that after I had been there twenty years!”
“But I don’t see what that has to do with the abolition of the tobacco monopoly,”  ventured the rubicund youth, taking advantage of the Franciscan’s pausing to drink a glass of sherry.
Fray Damaso was so greatly surprised that he nearly let his glass fall. He remained for a moment staring fixedly at the young man. “What? How’s that?” he was finally able to exclaim in great wonderment. “Is it possible that you don’t see it as clear as day? Don’t you see, my son, that all this proves plainly that the reforms of the ministers are irrational?”
It was now the youth’s turn to look perplexed. The lieutenant wrinkled his eyebrows a little more and the small man nodded toward Fray Damaso equivocally. The Dominican contented himself with almost turning his back on the whole group.
“Do you really believe so?” the young man at length asked with great seriousness, as he looked at the friar with curiosity.
“Do I believe so? As I believe the Gospel! The Indian is so indolent!”
“Ah, pardon me for interrupting you,” said the young man, lowering his voice and drawing his chair a little closer, “but you have said something that awakens all my interest. Does this indolence actually, naturally, exist among the natives or is there some truth in what a foreign traveler says: that with this indolence we excuse our own, as well as our backwardness and our colonial system. He referred to other colonies whose inhabitants belong to the same race–”
“Bah, jealousy! Ask SeÃ±or Laruja, who also knows this country. Ask him if there is any equal to the ignorance and indolence of the Indian.”
“It’s true,” affirmed the little man, who was referred to as SeÃ±or Laruja. “In no part of the world can you find any one more indolent than the Indian, in no part of the world.”
“Nor more vicious, nor more ungrateful!”
“Nor more unmannerly!”
The rubicund youth began to glance about nervously. “Gentlemen,” he whispered, “I believe that we are in the house of an Indian. Those young ladies–”
“Bah, don’t be so apprehensive! Santiago doesn’t consider himself an Indian–and besides, he’s not here. And what if he were! These are the nonsensical ideas of the newcomers. Let a few months pass and you will change your opinion, after you have attended a lot of fiestas and bailÃºhan, slept on cots, and eaten your fill of tinola.”
“Ah, is this thing that you call tinola a variety of lotus which makes people–er–forgetful?”
“Nothing of the kind!” exclaimed Fray Damaso with a smile. “You’re getting absurd. Tinola is a stew of chicken and squash. How long has it been since you got here?”
“Four days,” responded the youth, rather offended.
“Have you come as a government employee?”
“No, sir, I’ve come at my own expense to study the country.”
“Man, what a rare bird!” exclaimed Fray Damaso, staring at him with curiosity. “To come at one’s own expense and for such foolishness! What a wonder! When there are so many books! And with two fingerbreadths of forehead! Many have written books as big as that! With two fingerbreadths of forehead!”
The Dominican here brusquely broke in upon the conversation. “Did your Reverence, Fray Damaso, say that you had been twenty years in the town of San Diego and that you had left it? Wasn’t your Reverence satisfied with the town?”
At this question, which was put in a very natural and almost negligent tone, Fray Damaso suddenly lost all his merriment and stopped laughing. “No!” he grunted dryly, and let himself back heavily against the back of his chair.
The Dominican went on in a still more indifferent tone. “It must be painful to leave a town where one has been for twenty years and which he knows as well as the clothes he wears. I certainly was sorry to leave Kamiling and that after I had been there only a few months. But my superiors did it for the good of the Orders for my own good.”
Fray Damaso, for the first time that evening, seemed to be very thoughtful. Suddenly he brought his fist down on the arm of his chair and with a heavy breath exclaimed: “Either Religion is a fact or it is not! That is, either the curates are free or they are not! The country is going to ruin, it is lost!” And again he struck the arm of his chair.
Everybody in the sala turned toward the group with astonished looks. The Dominican raised his head to stare at the Franciscan from under his glasses. The two foreigners paused a moment, stared with an expression of mingled severity and reproof, then immediately continued their promenade.
“He’s in a bad humor because you haven’t treated him with deference,” murmured SeÃ±or Laruja into the ear of the rubicund youth.
“What does your Reverence mean? What’s the trouble?” inquired the Dominican and the lieutenant at the same time, but in different tones.
“That’s why so many calamities come! The ruling powers support heretics against the ministers of God!” continued the Franciscan, raising his heavy fists.
“What do you mean?” again inquired the frowning lieutenant, half rising from his chair.
“What do I mean?” repeated Fray Damaso, raising his voice and facing the lieutenant. “I’ll tell you what I mean. I, yes I, mean to say that when a priest throws out of his cemetery the corpse of a heretic, no one, not even the King himself, has any right to interfere and much less to impose any punishment! But a little General–a little General Calamity–”
“Padre, his Excellency is the Vice-Regal Patron!” shouted the soldier, rising to his feet.
“Excellency! Vice-Regal Patron! What of that!” retorted the Franciscan, also rising. “In other times he would have been dragged down a staircase as the religious orders once did with the impious Governor Bustamente. Those were indeed the days of faith.”
“I warn you that I can’t permit this! His Excellency represents his Majesty the King!”
“King or rook! What difference does that make? For us there is no king other than the legitimate–”
“Halt!” shouted the lieutenant in a threatening tone, as if he were commanding his soldiers. “Either you withdraw what you have said or tomorrow I will report it to his Excellency!”
“Go ahead–right now–go on!” was the sarcastic rejoinder of Fray Damaso as he approached the officer with clenched fists. “Do you think that because I wear the cloth, I’m afraid? Go now, while I can lend you my carriage!”
The dispute was taking a ludicrous turn, but fortunately the Dominican intervened. “Gentlemen,” he began in an authoritative tone and with the nasal twang that so well becomes the friars, “you must not confuse things or seek for offenses where there are none. We must distinguish in the words of Fray Damaso those of the man from those of the priest. The latter, as such, per se, can never give offense, because they spring from absolute truth, while in those of the man there is a secondary distinction to be made: those which he utters ab irato, those which he utters ex ore, but not in corde, and those which he does utter in corde. These last are the only ones that can really offend, and only according to whether they preexisted as a motive in mente, or arose solely per accidens in the heat of the discussion, if there really exist–”
“But I, by accidens and for my own part, understand his motives, Padre Sibyla,” broke in the old soldier, who saw himself about to be entangled in so many distinctions that he feared lest he might still be held to blame. “I understand the motives about which your Reverence is going to make distinctions. During the absence of Padre Damaso from San Diego, his coadjutor buried the body of an extremely worthy individual –yes, sir, extremely worthy, for I had had dealings with him many times and had been entertained in his house. What if he never went to confession, what does that matter? Neither do I go to confession! But to say that he committed suicide is a lie, a slander! A man such as he was, who has a son upon whom he centers his affection and hopes, a man who has faith in God, who recognizes his duties to society, a just and honorable man, does not commit suicide. This much I will say and will refrain from expressing the rest of my thoughts here, so please your Reverence.”
Then, turning his back on the Franciscan, he went on: “Now then, this priest on his return to the town, after maltreating the poor coadjutor, had the corpse dug up and taken away from the cemetery to be buried I don’t know where. The people of San Diego were cowardly enough not to protest, although it is true that few knew of the outrage. The dead man had no relatives there and his only son was in Europe. But his Excellency learned of the affair and as he is an upright man asked for some punishment–and Padre Damaso was transferred to a better town. That’s all there is to it. Now your Reverence can make your distinctions.”
So saying, he withdrew from the group.
“I’m sorry that I inadvertently brought up so delicate a subject,” said Padre Sibyla sadly. “But, after all, if there has been a gain in the change of towns”
“How is there to be a gain? And what of all the things that are lost in moving, the letters, and the–and everything that is mislaid?” interrupted Fray Damaso, stammering in the vain effort to control his anger.
Little by little the party resumed its former tranquillity. Other guests had come in, among them a lame old Spaniard of mild and inoffensive aspect leaning on the arm of an elderly Filipina, who was resplendent in frizzes and paint and a European gown. The group welcomed them heartily, and Doctor De EspadaÃ±a and his seÃ±ora, the Doctora DoÃ±a Victorina, took their seats among our acquaintances. Some newspaper reporters and shopkeepers greeted one another and moved about aimlessly without knowing just what to do.
“But can you tell me, SeÃ±or Laruja, what kind of man our host is?” inquired the rubicund youth. “I haven’t been introduced to him yet.”
“They say that he has gone out. I haven’t seen him either.”
“There’s no need of introductions here,” volunteered Fray Damaso. “Santiago is made of the right stuff.”
“No, he’s not the man who invented gunpowder,”  added Laruja.
“You too, SeÃ±or Laruja,” exclaimed DoÃ±a Victorina in mild reproach, as she fanned herself. “How could the poor man invent gunpowder if, as is said, the Chinese invented it centuries ago?”
“The Chinese! Are you crazy?” cried Fray Damaso. “Out with you! A Franciscan, one of my Order, Fray What-do-you-call-him Savalls,  invented it in the–ah the seventh century!”
“A Franciscan? Well, he must have been a missionary in China, that Padre Savalls,” replied the lady, who did not thus easily part from her beliefs.
“Schwartz, perhaps you mean, seÃ±ora,” said Fray Sibyla, without looking at her.
“I don’t know. Fray Damaso said a Franciscan and I was only repeating.”
“Well, Savalls or Chevas, what does it matter? The difference of a letter doesn’t make him a Chinaman,” replied the Franciscan in bad humor.
“And in the fourteenth century, not the seventh,” added the Dominican in a tone of correction, as if to mortify the pride of the other friar.
“Well, neither does a century more or less make him a Dominican.”
“Don’t get angry, your Reverence,” admonished Padre Sibyla, smiling. “So much the better that he did invent it so as to save his brethren the trouble.”
“And did you say, Padre Sibyla, that it was in the fourteenth century?” asked DoÃ±a Victorina with great interest. “Was that before or after Christ?”
Fortunately for the individual questioned, two persons entered the room.