Chapter 24

CHAPTER XXIV – In the Wood

Early, very early indeed, somewhat differently from his usual custom, Padre Salvi had celebrated mass and cleansed a dozen sinful souls in a few moments. Then it seemed that the reading of some letters which he had received firmly sealed and waxed caused the worthy curate to lose his appetite, since he allowed his chocolate to become completely cold.

“The padre is getting sick,” commented the cook while preparing another cup. “For days he hasn’t eaten; of the six dishes that I set before him on the table he doesn’t touch even two.”

“It’s because he sleeps badly,” replied the other servant. “He has nightmares since he changed his bedroom. His eyes are becoming more sunken all the time and he’s getting thinner and yellower day by day.”

Truly, Padre Salvi was a pitiable sight. He did not care to touch the second cup of chocolate nor to taste the sweet cakes of Cebu; instead, he paced thoughtfully about the spacious sala, crumpling in his bony hands the letters, which he read from time to time. Finally, he called for his carriage, got ready, and directed that he be taken to the wood where stood the fateful tree near which the picnic was being held.

Arriving at the edge of the wood, the padre dismissed his carriage and made his way alone into its depths. A gloomy pathway opened a difficult passage through the thickets and led to the brook formed by certain warm springs, like many that flow from the slopes of Mr. Makiling. Adorning its banks grow wild flowers, many of which have as yet no Latin names, but which are doubtless well-known to the gilded insects and butterflies of all shapes and colors, blue and gold, white and black, many-hued, glittering with iridescent spots, with rubies and emeralds on their wings, and to the countless beetles with their metallic lusters of powdered gold. The hum of the insects, the cries of the cicada, which cease not night or day, the songs of the birds, and the dry crashing of the rotten branch that falls and strikes all around against the trees, are the only sounds to break the stillness of that mysterious place.

For some time the padre wandered aimlessly among the thick underbrush, avoiding the thorns that caught at his guingón habit as though to detain him, and the roots of the trees that protruded from the soil to form stumbling-blocks at every step for this wanderer unaccustomed to such places. But suddenly his feet were arrested by the sound of clear voices raised in merry laughter, seeming to come from the brook and apparently drawing nearer.

“I’m going to see if I can find one of those nests,” said a beautiful, sweet voice, which the curate recognized. “I’d like to see him without having him see me, so I could follow him everywhere.”

Padre Salvi hid behind the trunk of a large tree and set himself to eavesdrop.

“Does that mean that you want to do with him what the curate does with
you?” asked a laughing voice. “He watches you everywhere. Be careful, for jealousy makes people thin and puts rings around their eyes.”

“No, no, not jealousy, it’s pure curiosity,” replied the silvery voice, while the laughing one repeated, “Yes, jealousy, jealousy!” and she burst out into merry laughter.

“If I were jealous, instead of making myself invisible, I’d make him so, in order that no one might see him.”

“But neither would you see him and that wouldn’t be nice. The best thing for us to do if we find the nest would be to present it to the curate so that he could watch over us without the necessity of our seeing him, don’t you think so?”

“I don’t believe in those herons’ nests,” interrupted another voice, “but if at any time I should be jealous, I’d know how to watch and still keep myself hidden.”

“How, how? Perhaps like a Sor Escucha?” [73]

This reminiscence of school-days provoked another merry burst of laughter.

“And you know how she’s fooled, the Sor Escucha!”

From his hiding-place Padre Salvi saw Maria Clara, Victoria, and Sinang wading along the border of the brook. They were moving forward with their eyes fixed on the crystal waters, seeking the enchanted nest of the heron, wet to their knees so that the wide folds of their bathing skirts revealed the graceful curves of their bodies. Their hair was flung loose, their arms bare, and they wore camisas with wide stripes of bright hues. While looking for something that they could not find they were picking flowers and plants which grew along the bank.

The religious Acteon stood pale and motionless gazing at that chaste Diana, but his eyes glittered in their dark circles, untired of staring at those white and shapely arms and at that elegant neck and bust, while the small rosy feet that played in the water awoke in his starved being strange sensations and in his burning brain dreams of new ideas.

The three charming figures disappeared behind a bamboo thicket around a bend in the brook, and their cruel allusions ceased to be heard. Intoxicated, staggering, covered with perspiration, Padre Salvi left his hiding-place and looked all about him with rolling eyes. He stood still as if in doubt, then took a few steps as though he would try to follow the girls, but turned again and made his way along the banks of the stream to seek the rest of the party.

At a little distance he saw in the middle of the brook a kind of bathing-place, well enclosed, decorated with palm leaves, flowers, and streamers, with a leafy clump of bamboo for a covering, from within which came the sound of happy feminine voices. Farther on he saw a bamboo bridge and beyond it the men bathing. Near these a crowd of servants was busily engaged around improvised kalanes in plucking chickens, washing rice, and roasting a pig. On the opposite bank in a cleared space were gathered men and women under a canvas covering which was fastened partly to the hoary trees and partly to newly-driven stakes. There were gathered the alferez, the coadjutor, the gobernadorcillo, the teniente-mayor, the schoolmaster, and many other personages of the town, even including Sinang’s father, Capitan Basilio, who had been the adversary of the deceased Don Rafael in an old lawsuit. Ibarra had said to him, “We are disputing over a point of law, but that does not mean that we are enemies,” so the celebrated orator of the conservatives had enthusiastically accepted the invitation, sending along three turkeys and putting his servants at the young man’s disposal.

The curate was received with respect and deference by all, even the alferez. “Why, where has your Reverence been?” asked the latter, as he noticed the curate’s scratched face and his habit covered with leaves and dry twigs. “Has your Reverence had a fall?”

“No, I lost my way,” replied Padre Salvi, lowering his gaze to examine his gown.

Bottles of lemonade were brought out and green coconuts were split open so that the bathers as they came from the water might refresh themselves with the milk and the soft meat, whiter than the milk itself. The girls all received in addition rosaries of sampaguitas, intertwined with roses and ilang-ilang blossoms, to perfume their flowing tresses. Some of the company sat on the ground or reclined in hammocks swung from the branches of the trees, while others amused themselves around a wide flat rock on which were to be seen playing-cards, a chess-board, booklets, cowry shells, and pebbles.

They showed the cayman to the curate, but he seemed inattentive until they told him that the gaping wound had been inflicted by Ibarra. The celebrated and unknown pilot was no longer to be seen, as he had disappeared before the arrival of the alferez.

At length Maria Clara came from the bath with her companions, looking fresh as a rose on its first morning when the dew sparkling on its fair petals glistens like diamonds. Her first smile was for Crisostomo and the first cloud on her brow for Padre Salvi, who noted it and sighed.

The lunch hour was now come, and the curate, the coadjutor, the gobernadorcillo, the teniente-mayor, and the other dignitaries took their seats at the table over which Ibarra presided. The mothers would not permit any of the men to eat at the table where the young women sat.

“This time, Albino, you can’t invent holes as in the bankas,” said Leon to the quondam student of theology. “What! What’s that?” asked the old women.

“The bankas, ladies, were as whole as this plate is,” explained Leon.

“Jesús! The rascal!” exclaimed the smiling Aunt Isabel.

“Have you yet learned anything of the criminal who assaulted Padre Damaso?” inquired Fray Salvi of the alferez.

“Of what criminal, Padre?” asked the military man, staring at the friar over the glass of wine that he was emptying,

“What criminal! Why, the one who struck Padre Damaso in the road yesterday afternoon!”

“Struck Padre Damaso?” asked several voices.

The coadjutor seemed to smile, while Padre Salvi went on: “Yes, and Padre Damaso is now confined to his bed. It’s thought that he may be the very same Elias who threw you into the mudhole, señor alferez.”

Either from shame or wine the alferez’s face became very red.

“Of course, I thought,” continued Padre Salvi in a joking manner, “that you, the alferez of the Civil Guard, would be informed about the affair.”

The soldier bit his lip and was murmuring some foolish excuse, when the meal was suddenly interrupted by the appearance of a pale, thin, poorly-clad woman. No one had noticed her approach, for she had come so noiselessly that at night she might have been taken for a ghost.

“Give this poor woman something to eat,” cried the old women. “Oy, come here!”

Still the strange woman kept on her way to the table where the curate was seated. As he turned his face and recognized her, his knife dropped from his hand.

“Give this woman something to eat,” ordered Ibarra.

“The night is dark and the boys disappear,” murmured the wandering woman, but at sight of the alferez, who spoke to her, she became frightened and ran away among the trees.

“Who is she?” he asked.

“An unfortunate woman who has become insane from fear and sorrow,” answered Don Filipo. “For four days now she has been so.”

“Is her name Sisa?” asked Ibarra with interest.

“Your soldiers arrested her,” continued the teniente-mayor, rather bitterly, to the alferez. “They marched her through the town on account of something about her sons which isn’t very clearly known.”

“What!” exclaimed the alferez, turning to the curate, “she isn’t the mother of your two sacristans?”

The curate nodded in affirmation.

“They disappeared and nobody made any inquiries about them,” added Don Filipo with a severe look at the gobernadorcillo, who dropped his eyes.

“Look for that woman,” Crisostomo ordered the servants. “I promised to try to learn where her sons are.”

“They disappeared, did you say?” asked the alferez. “Your sacristans disappeared, Padre?”

The friar emptied the glass of wine before him and again nodded.

“Caramba, Padre!” exclaimed the alferez with a sarcastic laugh, pleased at the thought of a little revenge. “A few pesos of your Reverence’s disappear and my sergeant is routed out early to hunt for them– two sacristans disappear and your Reverence says nothing–and you, señor capitan–It’s also true that you–”

Here he broke off with another laugh as he buried his spoon in the red meat of a wild papaya.

The curate, confused, and not over-intent upon what he was saying, replied, “That’s because I have to answer for the money–”

“A good answer, reverend shepherd of souls!” interrupted the alferez with his mouth full of food. “A splendid answer, holy man!”

Ibarra wished to intervene, but Padre Salvi controlled himself by an effort and said with a forced smile, “Then you don’t know, sir, what is said about the disappearance of those boys? No? Then ask your soldiers!”

“What!” exclaimed the alferez, all his mirth gone.

“It’s said that on the night they disappeared several shots were

“Several shots?” echoed the alferez, looking around at the other guests, who nodded their heads in corroboration of the padre’s statement.

Padre Salvi then replied slowly and with cutting sarcasm: “Come now, I see that you don’t catch the criminals nor do you know what is going on in your own house, yet you try to set yourself up as a preacher to point out their duties to others. You ought to keep in mind that proverb about the fool in his own house–” [74]

“Gentlemen!” interrupted Ibarra, seeing that the alferez had grown pale. “In this connection I should like to have your opinion about a project of mine. I’m thinking of putting this crazy woman under the care of a skilful physician and, in the meantime, with your aid and advice, I’ll search for her sons.”

The return of the servants without the madwoman, whom they had been unable to find, brought peace by turning the conversation to other matters.

The meal ended, and while the tea and coffee were being served, both old and young scattered about in different groups. Some took the chessmen, others the cards, while the girls, curious about the future, chose to put questions to a Wheel of Fortune.

“Come, Señor Ibarra,” called Capitan Basilio in merry mood, “we have a lawsuit fifteen years old, and there isn’t a judge in the Audiencia who can settle it. Let’s see if we can’t end it on the chess-board.” “With the greatest pleasure,” replied the youth. “Just wait a moment, the alferez is leaving.”

Upon hearing about this match all the old men who understood chess gathered around the board, for it promised to be an interesting one, and attracted even spectators who were not familiar with the game. The old women, however, surrounded the curate in order to converse with him about spiritual matters, but Fray Salvi apparently did not consider the place and time appropriate, for he gave vague answers and his sad, rather bored, looks wandered in all directions except toward his questioners.

The chess-match began with great solemnity. “If this game ends in a draw, it’s understood that the lawsuit is to be dropped,” said Ibarra.

In the midst of the game Ibarra received a telegram which caused his eyes to shine and his face to become pale. He put it into his pocketbook, at the same time glancing toward the group of young people, who were still with laughter and shouts putting questions to Destiny.

“Check to the king!” called the youth.

Capitan Basilio had no other recourse than to hide the piece behind the queen.

“Check to the queen!” called the youth as he threatened that piece with a rook which was defended by a pawn.

Being unable to protect the queen or to withdraw the piece on account of the king behind it, Capitan Basilio asked for time to reflect.

“Willingly,” agreed Ibarra, “especially as I have something to say this very minute to those young people in that group over there.” He arose with the agreement that his opponent should have a quarter of an hour.

Iday had the round card on which were written the forty-eight questions, while Albino held the book of answers.

“A lie! It’s not so!” cried Sinang, half in tears.

“What’s the matter?” asked Maria Clara.

“Just imagine, I asked, ‘When shall I have some sense?’ I threw the dice and that worn-out priest read from the book, ‘When the frogs raise hair.’ What do you think of that? “As she said this, Sinang made a grimace at the laughing ex-theological student.

“Who told you to ask that question?” her cousin Victoria asked her. “To ask it is enough to deserve such an answer.”

“You ask a question,” they said to Ibarra, offering him the wheel. “We’re decided that whoever gets the best answer shall receive a present from the rest. Each of us has already had a question.”

“Who got the best answer?”

“Maria Clara, Maria Clara!” replied Sinang. “We made her ask,
willy-nilly, ‘Is your sweetheart faithful and constant?’ And the book answered–”

But here the blushing Maria Clara put her hands over Sinang’s mouth so that she could not finish.

“Well, give me the wheel,” said Crisostomo, smiling. “My question is, ‘Shall I succeed in my present enterprise?’”

“What an ugly question!” exclaimed Sinang.

Ibarra threw the dice and in accordance with the resulting number the page and line were sought.

“Dreams are dreams,” read Albino.

Ibarra drew out the telegram and opened it with trembling hands. “This time your book is wrong!” he exclaimed joyfully. “Read this: ‘School project approved. Suit decided in your favor.’”

“What does it mean?” all asked.

“Didn’t you say that a present is to be given to the one receiving the best answer?” he asked in a voice shaking with emotion as he tore the telegram carefully into two pieces.

“Yes, yes!”

“Well then, this is my present,” he said as he gave one piece to Maria Clara. “A school for boys and girls is to be built in the town and this school is my present.”

“And the other part, what does it mean?”

“It’s to be given to the one who has received the worst answer.”

“To me, then, to me!” cried Sinang.

Ibarra gave her the other piece of the telegram and hastily withdrew.

“What does it mean?” she asked, but the happy youth was already at a distance, returning to the game of chess.

Fray Salvi in abstracted mood approached the circle of young people. Maria Clara wiped away her tears of joy, the laughter ceased, and the talk died away. The curate stared at the young people without offering to say anything, while they silently waited for him to speak.

“What’s this?” he at length asked, picking up the book and turning its leaves.

“The Wheel of Fortune, a book of games,” replied Leon.

“Don’t you know that it’s a sin to believe in these things?” he scolded, tearing the leaves out angrily.

Cries of surprise and anger escaped from the lips of all.

“It’s a greater sin to dispose of what isn’t yours, against the wish of the owner,” contradicted Albino, rising. “Padre, that’s what is called stealing and it is forbidden by God and men!”

Maria Clara clasped her hands and gazed with tearful eyes at the remnants of the book which a few moments before had been the source of so much happiness for her.

Contrary to the general expectation, Fray Salvi did not reply to Albino, but stood staring at the torn leaves as they were whirled about, some falling in the wood, some in the water, then he staggered away with his hands over his head. He stopped for a few moments to speak with Ibarra, who accompanied him to one of the carriages, which were at the disposal of the guests.

“He’s doing well to leave, that kill-joy,” murmured Sinang. “He has a face that seems to say, ‘Don’t laugh, for I know about your sins!’”

After making the present to his fiancée, Ibarra was so happy that he began to play without reflection or a careful examination of the positions of the pieces. The result was that although Capitan Basilio was hard pressed the game became a stalemate, owing to many careless moves on the young man’s part.

“It’s settled, we’re at peace!” exclaimed Capitan Basilio heartily.

“Yes, we’re at peace,” repeated the youth, “whatever the decision of the court may be.” And the two shook hands cordially.

While all present were rejoicing over this happy termination of a quarrel of which both parties were tired, the sudden arrival of a sergeant and four soldiers of the Civil Guard, all armed and with bayonets fixed, disturbed the mirth and caused fright among the women.

“Keep still, everybody!” shouted the sergeant. “Shoot any one who moves!”

In spite of this blustering command, Ibarra arose and approached the sergeant. “What do you want?” he asked.

“That you deliver to us at once a criminal named Elias, who was your pilot this morning,” was the threatening reply.

“A criminal–the pilot? You must be mistaken,” answered Ibarra.

“No, sir, this Elias has just been accused of putting his hand on a priest–”

“Oh, was that the pilot?”

“The very same, according to reports. You admit persons of bad character into your fiestas, Señor Ibarra.”

Ibarra looked him over from head to foot and replied with great disdain, “I don’t have to give you an account of my actions! At our fiestas all are welcome. Had you yourself come, you would have found a place at our table, just as did your alferez, who was with us a couple of hours ago.” With this he turned his back.

The sergeant gnawed at the ends of his mustache but, considering himself the weaker party, ordered the soldiers to institute a search, especially among the trees, for the pilot, a description of whom he carried on a piece of paper.

Don Filipo said to him, “Notice that this description fits nine tenths of the natives. Don’t make any false move!”

After a time the soldiers returned with the report that they had been unable to see either banka or man that could be called suspicious-looking, so the sergeant muttered a few words and went away as he had come–in the manner of the Civil Guard!

The merriment was little by little restored, amid questions and comments.

“So that’s the Elias who threw the alferez into the mudhole,” said Leon thoughtfully.

“How did that happen? How was it?” asked some of the more curious.

“They say that on a very rainy day in September the alferez met a man who was carrying a bundle of firewood. The road was very muddy and there was only a narrow path at the side, wide enough for but one person. They say that the alferez, instead of reining in his pony, put spurs to it, at the same time calling to the man to get out of the way. It seemed that this man, on account of the heavy load he was carrying on his shoulder, had little relish for going back nor did he want to be swallowed up in the mud, so he continued on his way forward. The alferez in irritation tried to knock him down, but he snatched a piece of wood from his bundle and struck the pony on the head with such great force that it fell, throwing its rider into the mud. They also say that the man went on his way tranquilly without taking any notice of the five bullets that were fired after him by the alferez, who was blind with mud and rage. As the man was entirely unknown to him it was supposed that he might be the famous Elias who came to the province several months ago, having come from no one knows where. He has given the Civil Guard cause to know him in several towns for similar actions.”

“Then he’s a tulisan?” asked Victoria shuddering.

“I don’t think so, for they say that he fought against some tulisanes one day when they were robbing a house.”

“He hasn’t the look of a criminal,” commented Sinang.

“No, but he looks very sad. I didn’t see him smile the whole morning,” added Maria Clara thoughtfully.

So the afternoon passed away and the hour for returning to the town came. Under the last rays of the setting sun they left the woods, passing in silence by the mysterious tomb of Ibarra’s ancestors. Afterwards, the merry talk was resumed in a lively manner, full of warmth, beneath those branches so little accustomed to hear so many voices. The trees seemed sad, while the vines swung back and forth as if to say, “Farewell, youth! Farewell, dream of a day!”

Now in the light of the great red torches of bamboo and with the sound of the guitars let us leave them on the road to the town. The groups grow smaller, the lights are extinguished, the songs die away, and the guitar becomes silent as they approach the abodes of men. Put on the mask now that you are once more amongst your kind!






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