CHAPTER IX – Local Affairs
Ibarra had not been mistaken about the occupant of the victoria, for it was indeed Padre Damaso, and he was on his way to the house which the youth had just left.
“Where are you going?” asked the friar of Maria Clara and Aunt Isabel, who were about to enter a silver-mounted carriage. In the midst of his preoccupation Padre Damaso stroked the maiden’s cheek lightly.
“To the convent to get my things,” answered the latter.
“Ahaa! Aha! We’ll see who’s stronger, we’ll see,” muttered the friar abstractedly, as with bowed head and slow step he turned to the stairway, leaving the two women not a little amazed.
“He must have a sermon to preach and is memorizing it,” commented Aunt Isabel. “Get in, Maria, or we’ll be late.”
Whether or not Padre Damaso was preparing a sermon we cannot say, but it is certain that some grave matter filled his mind, for he did not extend his hand to Capitan Tiago, who had almost to get down on his knees to kiss it.
“Santiago,” said the friar at once, “I have an important matter to talk to you about. Let’s go into your office.”
Capitan Tiago began to feel uneasy, so much so that he did not know what to say; but he obeyed, following the heavy figure of the priest, who closed the door behind him.
While they confer in secret, let us learn what Fray Sibyla has been doing. The astute Dominican is not at the rectory, for very soon after celebrating mass he had gone to the convent of his order, situated just inside the gate of Isabel II, or of Magellan, according to what family happened to be reigning in Madrid. Without paying any attention to the rich odor of chocolate, or to the rattle of boxes and coins which came from the treasury, and scarcely acknowledging the respectful and deferential salute of the procurator-brother, he entered, passed along several corridors, and knocked at a door.
“Come in,” sighed a weak voice.
“May God restore health to your Reverence,” was the young Dominican’s greeting as he entered.
Seated in a large armchair was an aged priest, wasted and rather sallow, like the saints that Rivera painted. His eyes were sunken in their hollow sockets, over which his heavy eyebrows were almost always contracted, thus accentuating their brilliant gleam. Padre Sibyla, with his arms crossed under the venerable scapulary of St. Dominic, gazed at him feelingly, then bowed his head and waited in silence.
“Ah,” sighed the old man, “they advise an operation, an operation, Hernando, at my age! This country, O this terrible country! Take warning from my ease, Hernando!”
Fray Sibyla raised his eyes slowly and fixed them on the sick man’s face. “What has your Reverence decided to do?” he asked.
“To die! Ah, what else can I do? I am suffering too much, but– I have made many suffer, I am paying my debt! And how are you? What has brought you here?”
“I’ve come to talk about the business which you committed to my care.”
“Ah! What about it?”
“Pish!” answered the young man disgustedly, as he seated himself and turned away his face with a contemptuous expression, “They’ve been telling us fairy tales. Young Ibarra is a youth of discernment; he doesn’t seem to be a fool, but I believe that he is a good lad.”
“You believe so?”
“Hostilities began last night.”
Fray Sibyla then recounted briefly what had taken place between Padre Damaso and Ibarra. “Besides,” he said in conclusion, “the young man is going to marry Capitan Tiago’s daughter, who was educated in the college of our Sisterhood. He’s rich, and won’t care to make enemies and to run the risk of ruining his fortune and his happiness.”
The sick man nodded in agreement. “Yes, I think as you do. With a wife like that and such a father-in-law, we’ll own him body and soul. If not, so much the better for him to declare himself an enemy of ours.”
Fray Sibyla looked at the old man in surprise.
“For the good of our holy Order, I mean, of course,” he added, breathing heavily. “I prefer open attacks to the silly praises and flatteries of friends, which are really paid for.”
“Does your Reverence think–”
The old man regarded him sadly. “Keep it clearly before you,” he answered, gasping for breath. “Our power will last as long as it is believed in. If they attack us, the government will say, ‘They attack them because they see in them an obstacle to their liberty, so then let us preserve them.’”
“But if it should listen to them? Sometimes the government–”
“It will not listen!”
“Nevertheless, if, led on by cupidity, it should come to wish for itself what we are taking in–if there should be some bold and daring one–”
“Then woe unto that one!”
Both remained silent for a time, then the sick man continued: “Besides, we need their attacks, to keep us awake; that makes us see our weaknesses so that we may remedy them. Exaggerated flattery will deceive us and put us to sleep, while outside our walls we shall be laughed at, and the day in which we become an object of ridicule, we shall fall as we fell in Europe. Money will not flow into our churches, no one will buy our scapularies or girdles or anything else, and when we cease to be rich we shall no longer be able to control consciences.”
“But we shall always have our estates, our property.”
“All will be lost as we lost them in Europe! And the worst of it is that we are working toward our own ruin. For example, this unrestrained eagerness to raise arbitrarily the rents on our lands each year, this eagerness which I have so vainly combated in all the chapters, this will ruin us! The native sees himself obliged to purchase farms in other places, which bring him as good returns as ours, or better. I fear that we are already on the decline; quos vult perdere Jupiter dementat prius. For this reason we should not increase our burden; the people are already murmuring. You have decided well: let us leave the others to settle their accounts in that quarter; let us preserve the prestige that remains to us, and as we shall soon appear before God, let us wash our hands of it–and may the God of mercy have pity on our weakness!”
“So your Reverence thinks that the rent or tax–”
“Let’s not talk any more about money,” interrupted the sick man with signs of disgust. “You say that the lieutenant threatened to Padre Damaso that–”
“Yes, Padre,” broke in Fray Sibyla with a faint smile, “but this morning I saw him and he told me that he was sorry for what occurred last night, that the sherry had gone to his head, and that he believed that Padre Damaso was in the same condition. ‘And your threat?’ I asked him jokingly. ‘Padre,’ he answered me, ‘I know how to keep my word when my honor is affected, but I am not nor have ever been an informer–for that reason I wear only two stars.’”
After they had conversed a while longer on unimportant subjects, Fray Sibyla took his departure.
It was true that the lieutenant had not gone to the Palace, but the Captain-General heard what had occurred. While talking with some of his aides about the allusions that the Manila newspapers were making to him under the names of comets and celestial apparitions, one of them told him about the affair of Padre Damaso, with a somewhat heightened coloring although substantially correct as to matter.
“From whom did you learn this?” asked his Excellency, smiling.
“From Laruja, who was telling it this morning in the office.”
The Captain-General again smiled and said: “A woman or a friar can’t insult one. I contemplate living in peace for the time that I shall remain in this country and I don’t want any more quarrels with men who wear skirts. Besides, I’ve learned that the Provincial has scoffed at my orders. I asked for the removal of this friar as a punishment and they transferred him to a better town ‘monkish tricks,’ as we say in Spain.”
But when his Excellency found himself alone he stopped smiling. “Ah, if this people were not so stupid, I would put a curb on their Reverences,” he sighed to himself. “But every people deserves its fate, so let’s do as everybody else does.”
Capitan Tiago, meanwhile, had concluded his interview with Padre Damaso, or rather, to speak more exactly, Padre Damaso had concluded with him.
“So now you are warned!” said the Franciscan on leaving. “All this could have been avoided if you had consulted me beforehand, if you had not lied when I asked you. Try not to play any more foolish tricks, and trust your protector.”
Capitan Tiago walked up and down the sala a few times, meditating and sighing. Suddenly, as if a happy thought had occurred to him, he ran to the oratory and extinguished the candles and the lamp that had been lighted for Ibarra’s safety. “The way is long and there’s yet time,” he muttered.