CHAPTER XV – The Sacristans
The thunder resounded, roar following close upon roar, each preceded’ by a blinding flash of zigzag lightning, so that it might have been said that God was writing his name in fire and that the eternal arch of heaven was trembling with fear. The rain, whipped about in a different direction each moment by the mournfully whistling wind, fell in torrents. With a voice full of fear the bells sounded their sad supplication, and in the brief pauses between the roars of the unchained elements tolled forth sorrowful peals, like plaintive groans.
On the second floor of the church tower were the two boys whom we saw talking to the Sage. The younger, a child of seven years with large black eyes and a timid countenance, was huddling close to his brother, a boy of ten, whom he greatly resembled in features, except that the look on the elder’s face was deeper and firmer.
Both were meanly dressed in clothes full of rents and patches. They sat upon a block of wood, each holding the end of a rope which extended upward and was lost amid the shadows above. The wind-driven rain reached them and snuffed the piece of candle burning dimly on the large round stone that was used to furnish the thunder on Good Friday by being rolled around the gallery.
“Pull on the rope, Crispin, pull!” cried the elder to his little brother, who did as he was told, so that from above was heard a faint peal, instantly drowned out by the reechoing thunder.
“Oh, if we were only at home now with mother,” sighed the younger, as he gazed at his brother. “There I shouldn’t be afraid.”
The elder did not answer; he was watching the melting wax of the candle, apparently lost in thought.
“There no one would say that I stole,” went on Crispin. “Mother wouldn’t allow it. If she knew that they whip me–”
The elder took his gaze from the flame, raised his head, and clutching the thick rope pulled violently on it so that a sonorous peal of the bells was heard.
“Are we always going to live this way, brother?” continued Crispin. “I’d like to get sick at home tomorrow, I’d like to fall into a long sickness so that mother might take care of me and not let me come back to the convento. So I’d not be called a thief nor would they whip me. And you too, brother, you must get sick with me.”
“No,” answered the older, “we should all die: mother of grief and we of hunger.”
Crispin remained silent for a moment, then asked, “How much will you get this month?”
“Two pesos. They’re fined me twice.”
“Then pay what they say I’ve stolen, so that they won’t call us thieves. Pay it, brother!”
“Are you crazy, Crispin? Mother wouldn’t have anything to eat. The senior sacristan says that you’ve stolen two gold pieces, and they’re worth thirty-two pesos.”
The little one counted on his fingers up to thirty-two. “Six hands and two fingers over and each finger a peso!” he murmured thoughtfully. “And each peso, how many cuartos?”
“A hundred and sixty.”
“A hundred and sixty cuartos? A hundred and sixty times a cuarto? Goodness! And how many are a hundred and sixty?”
“Thirty-two hands,” answered the older.
Crispin looked hard at his little hands. “Thirty-two hands,” he repeated, “six hands and two fingers over and each finger thirty-two hands and each finger a cuarto–goodness, what a lot of cuartos! I could hardly count them in three days; and with them could be bought shoes for our feet, a hat for my head when the sun shines hot, a big umbrella for the rain, and food, and clothes for you and mother, and–” He became silent and thoughtful again.
“Now I’m sorry that I didn’t steal!” he soon exclaimed.
“Crispin!” reproached his brother.
“Don’t get angry! The curate has said that he’ll beat me to death if the money doesn’t appear, and if I had stolen it I could make it appear. Anyhow, if I died you and mother would at least have clothes. Oh, if I had only stolen it!”
The elder pulled on the rope in silence. After a time he replied with a sigh: “What I’m afraid of is that mother will scold you when she knows about it.”
“Do you think so?” asked the younger with astonishment. “You will tell her that they’re whipped me and I’ll show the welts on my back and my torn pocket. I had only one cuarto, which was given to me last Easter, but the curate took that away from me yesterday. I never saw a prettier cuarto! No, mother won’t believe it.”
“If the curate says so–”
Crispin began to cry, murmuring between his sobs, “Then go home alone! I don’t want to go. Tell mother that I’m sick. I don’t want to go.”
“Crispin, don’t cry!” pleaded the elder. “Mother won’t believe it– don’t cry! Old Tasio told us that a fine supper is waiting for us.”
“A fine supper! And I haven’t eaten for a long time. They won’t give me anything to eat until the two gold pieces appear. But, if mother believes it? You must tell her that the senior sacristan is a liar but that the curate believes him and that all of them are liars, that they say that we’re thieves because our father is a vagabond who–”
At that instant a head appeared at the top of the stairway leading down to the floor below, and that head, like Medusa’s, froze the words on the child’s lips. It was a long, narrow head covered with black hair, with blue glasses concealing the fact that one eye was sightless. The senior sacristan was accustomed to appear thus without noise or warning of any kind. The two brothers turned cold with fear.
“On you, Basilio, I impose a fine of two reals for not ringing the bells in time,” he said in a voice so hollow that his throat seemed to lack vocal chords. “You, Crispin, must stay tonight, until what you stole reappears.”
Crispin looked at his brother as if pleading for protection.
“But we already have permission–mother expects us at eight o’clock,” objected Basilio timidly.
“Neither shall you go home at eight, you’ll stay until ten.”
“But, sir, after nine o’clock no one is allowed to be out and our house is far from here.”
“Are you trying to give me orders?” growled the man irritably, as he caught Crispin by the arm and started to drag him away.
“Oh, sir, it’s been a week now since we’re seen our mother,” begged Basilio, catching hold of his brother as if to defend him.
The senior sacristan struck his hand away and jerked at Crispin, who began to weep as he fell to the floor, crying out to his brother, “Don’t leave me, they’re going to kill me!”
The sacristan gave no heed to this and dragged him on to the stairway. As they disappeared among the shadows below Basilio stood speechless, listening to the sounds of his brother’s body striking against the steps. Then followed the sound of a blow and heartrending cries that died away in the distance.
The boy stood on tiptoe, hardly breathing and listening fixedly, with his eyes unnaturally wide and his fists clenched. “When shall I be strong enough to plow a field?” he muttered between his teeth as he started below hastily. Upon reaching the organ-loft he paused to listen; the voice of his brother was fast dying away in the distance and the cries of “Mother! Brother!” were at last completely cut off by the sound of a closing door. Trembling and perspiring, he paused for a moment with his fist in his mouth to keep down a cry of anguish. He let his gaze wander about the dimly lighted church where an oil-lamp gave a ghostly light, revealing the catafalque in the center. The doors were closed and fastened, and the windows had iron bars on them. Suddenly he reascended the stairway to the place where the candle was burning and then climbed up into the third floor of the belfry. After untying the ropes from the bell-clappers he again descended. He was pale and his eyes glistened, but not with tears.
Meanwhile, the rain was gradually ceasing and the sky was clearing. Basilio knotted the ropes together, tied one end to a rail of the balustrade, and without even remembering to put out the light let himself down into the darkness outside. A few moments later voices were heard on one of the streets of the town, two shots resounded, but no one seemed to be alarmed and silence again reigned.
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