Noli Me Tangere: Chapter 39 РDo̱a Consolacion

Why were the windows closed in the house of the alferez? Where were the masculine features and the flannel camisa of the Medusa or Muse of the Civil Guard while the procession was passing? Had Doña Consolacion realized how disagreeable were her forehead seamed with thick veins that appeared to conduct not blood but vinegar and gall, and the thick cigar that made a fit ornament for her purple lips, and her envious leer, and yielding to a generous impulse had she wished not to disturb the pleasure of the populace by her sinister appearance? Ah, for her generous impulses existed in the Golden Age! The house, showed neither lanterns nor banners and was gloomy precisely because the town was making merry, as Sinang said, and but for the sentinel walking before the door appeared to be uninhabited.

A dim light shone in the disordered sala, rendering transparent the dirty concha-panes on which the cobwebs had fastened and the dust had become incrusted. The lady of the house, according to her indolent custom, was dozing on a wide sofa. She was dressed as usual, that is, badly and horribly: tied round her head a pañuelo, from beneath which escaped thin locks of tangled hair, a camisa of blue flannel over another which must once have been white, and a faded skirt which showed the outlines of her thin, flat thighs, placed one over the other and shaking feverishly. From her mouth issued little clouds of smoke which she puffed wearily in whatever direction she happened to be looking when she opened her eyes. If at that moment Don Francisco de Cañamaque[107] could have seen her, he would have taken her for a cacique of the town or the mankukúlam, and then decorated his discovery with commentaries in the vernacular of the markets, invented by him for her particular use.

That morning she had not attended mass, not because she had not so desired, for on the contrary she had wished to show herself to the multitude and to hear the sermon, but her spouse had not permitted her to do so, his refusal being accompanied as usual by two or three insults, oaths, and threats of kicking. The alferez knew that his mate dressed ridiculously and had the, appearance of what is known as a “querida of the soldiers,” so he did not care to expose her to the gaze of strangers and persons from the capital. But she did not so understand it. She knew that she was beautiful and attractive, that she had the airs of a queen and dressed much better and with more splendor than Maria Clara herself, who wore a tapis while she went in a flowing skirt. It was therefore necessary for the alferez to threaten her, “Either shut up, or I’ll kick you back to your damned town!” Doña Consolacion did not care to return to her town at the toe of a boot, but she meditated revenge.

Never had the dark face of this lady been such as to inspire confidence in any one, not even when she painted, but that morning it greatly worried the servants, especially when they saw her move about the house from one part to another, silently, as if meditating something terrible or malign. Her glance reflected the look that springs from the eyes of a serpent when caught and about to be crushed; it was cold, luminous, and penetrating, with something fascinating, loathsome, and cruel in it. The most insignificant error, the least unusual noise, drew from her a vile insult that struck into the soul, but no one answered her, for to excuse oneself would have been an additional fault.

So the day passed. Not encountering any obstacle that would block her way,–her husband had been invited out,–she became saturated with bile, the cells of her whole organism seemed to become charged with electricity which threatened to burst in a storm of hate. Everything about her folded up as do the flowers at the first breath of the hurricane, so she met with no resistance nor found any point or high place to discharge her evil humor. The soldiers and servants kept away from her. That she might not hear the sounds of rejoicing outside she had ordered the windows closed and charged the sentinel to let no one enter. She tied a handkerchief around her head as if to keep it from bursting and, in spite of the fact that the sun was still shining, ordered the lamps to be lighted.

Sisa, as we saw, had been arrested as a disturber of the peace and taken to the barracks. The alferez was not then present, so the unfortunate woman had had to spend the night there seated on a bench in an abandoned attitude. The next day the alferez saw her, and fearing for her in those days of confusion nor caring to risk a disagreeable scene, he had charged the soldiers to look after her, to treat her kindly, and to give her something to eat. Thus the madwoman spent two days.

Tonight, whether the nearness to the house of Capitan Tiago had brought to her Maria Clara’s sad song or whether other recollections awoke in her old melodies, whatever the cause, Sisa also began to sing in a sweet and melancholy voice the kundíman of her youth. The soldiers heard her and fell silent; those airs awoke old memories of the days before they had been corrupted. Doña Consolacion also heard them in her tedium, and on learning who it was that sang, after a few moments of meditation, ordered that Sisa be brought to her instantly. Something like a smile wandered over her dry lips.

When Sisa was brought in she came calmly, showing neither wonder nor fear. She seemed to see no lady or mistress, and this wounded the vanity of the Muse, who endeavored to inspire respect and fear. She coughed, made a sign to the soldiers to leave her, and taking down her husband’s whip, said to the crazy woman in a sinister tone, “Come on, magcantar icau!” [108]

Naturally, Sisa did not understand such Tagalog, and this ignorance calmed the Medusa’s wrath, for one of the beautiful qualities of this lady was to try not to know Tagalog, or at least to appear not to know it. Speaking it the worst possible, she would thus give herself the air of a genuine orofea,[109] as she was accustomed to say. But she did well, for if she martyrized Tagalog, Spanish fared no better with her, either in regard to grammar or pronunciation, in spite of her husband, the chairs and the shoes, all of which had done what they could to teach her.

One of the words that had cost her more effort than the hieroglyphics cost Champollion was the name Filipinas. The story goes that on the day after her wedding, when she was talking with her husband, who was then a corporal, she had said Pilipinas. The corporal thought it his duty to correct her, so he said, slapping her on the head, “Say Felipinas, woman! Don’t be stupid! Don’t you know that’s what your damned country is called, from Felipe?”

The woman, dreaming through her honeymoon, wished to obey and said Felepinas. To the corporal it seemed that she was getting nearer to it, so he increased the slaps and reprimanded her thus: “But, woman, can’t you pronounce Felipe? Don’t forget it; you know the king, Don Felipe –the fifth–. Say Felipe, and add to it nas, which in Latin means ‘islands of Indians,’ and you have the name of your damned country!”

Consolacion, at that time a washerwoman, patted her bruises and repeated with symptoms of losing her patience, “Fe-li-pe, Felipe– nas, Fe-li-pe-nas, Felipinas, so?”

The corporal saw visions. How could it be Felipenas instead of Felipinas? One of two things: either it was Felipenas or it was necessary to say Felipi! So that day he very prudently dropped the subject. Leaving his wife, he went to consult the books. Here his astonishment reached a climax: he rubbed his eyes–let’s see– slowly, now! F-i-l-i-p-i-n-a-s, Filipinas! So all the well-printed books gave it–neither he nor his wife was right!

“How’s this?” he murmured. “Can history lie? Doesn’t this book say that Alonso Saavedra gave the country that name in honor of the prince, Don Felipe? How was that name corrupted? Can it be that this Alonso Saavedra was an Indian?” [110]

With these doubts he went to consult the sergeant Gomez, who, as a youth, had wanted to be a curate. Without deigning to look at the corporal the sergeant blew out a mouthful of smoke and answered with great pompousness, “In ancient times it was pronounced Filipi instead of Felipe. But since we moderns have become Frenchified we can’t endure two i’s in succession, so cultured people, especially in Madrid–you’ve never been in Madrid?–cultured people, as I say, have begun to change the first i to e in many words. This is called modernizing yourself.”

The poor corporal had never been in Madrid–here was the cause of his failure to understand the riddle: what things are learned in Madrid! “So now it’s proper to say–”

“In the ancient style, man! This country’s not yet cultured! In the ancient style, Filipinas!” exclaimed Gomez disdainfully.

The corporal, even if he was a bad philologist, was yet a good husband. What he had just learned his spouse must also know, so he proceeded with her education: “Consola, what do you call your damned country?”

“What should I call it? Just what you taught me: Felifinas!”

“I’ll throw a chair at you, you —-! Yesterday you pronounced it even better in the modern style, but now it’s proper to pronounce it like an ancient: Feli, I mean, Filipinas!”

“Remember that I’m no ancient! What are you thinking about?”

“Never mind! Say Filipinas!”

“I don’t want to. I’m no ancient baggage, scarcely thirty years old!” she replied, rolling up her sleeves and preparing herself for the fray.

“Say it, you —-, or I’ll throw this chair at you!”

Consolacion saw the movement, reflected, then began to stammer with heavy breaths, “Feli-, Fele-, File–”

Pum! Crack! The chair finished the word. So the lesson ended in fisticuffs, scratchings, slaps. The corporal caught her by the hair; she grabbed his goatee, but was unable to bite because of her loose teeth. He let out a yell, released her and begged her pardon. Blood began to flow, one eye got redder than the other, a camisa was torn into shreds, many things came to light, but not Filipinas.

Similar incidents occurred every time the question of language came up. The corporal, watching her linguistic progress, sorrowfully calculated that in ten years his mate would have completely forgotten how to talk, and this was about what really came to pass. When they were married she still knew Tagalog and could make herself understood in Spanish, but now, at the time of our story, she no longer spoke any language. She had become so addicted to expressing herself by means of signs–and of these she chose the loudest and most impressive– that she could have given odds to the inventor of Volapuk.

Sisa, therefore, had the good fortune not to understand her, so the Medusa smoothed out her eyebrows a little, while a smile of satisfaction lighted up her face; undoubtedly she did not know Tagalog, she was an orofea!

“Boy, tell her in Tagalog to sing! She doesn’t understand me, she doesn’t understand Spanish!”

The madwoman understood the boy and began to sing the Song of the Night. Doña Consolacion listened at first with a sneer, which disappeared little by little from her lips. She became attentive, then serious, and even somewhat thoughtful. The voice, the sentiment in the lines, and the song itself affected her–that dry and withered heart was perhaps thirsting for rain. She understood it well: “The sadness, the cold, and the moisture that descend from the sky when wrapped in the mantle of night,” so ran the kundíman, seemed to be descending also on her heart. “The withered and faded flower which during the day flaunted her finery, seeking applause and full of vanity, at eventide, repentant and disenchanted, makes an effort to raise her drooping petals to the sky, seeking a little shade to hide herself and die without the mocking of the light that saw her in her splendor, without seeing the vanity of her pride, begging also that a little dew should weep upon her. The nightbird leaves his solitary retreat, the hollow of an ancient trunk, and disturbs the sad loneliness of the open places–”

“No, don’t sing!” she exclaimed in perfect Tagalog, as she rose with agitation. “Don’t sing! Those verses hurt me.”

The crazy woman became silent. The boy ejaculated, “Abá! She talks Tagalog!” and stood staring with admiration at his mistress, who, realizing that she had given herself away, was ashamed of it, and as her nature was not that of a woman, the shame took the aspect of rage and hate; so she showed the door to the imprudent boy and closed it behind him with a kick.

Twisting the whip in her nervous hands, she took a few turns around the room, then stopping suddenly in front of the crazy woman, said to her in Spanish, “Dance!” But Sisa did not move.

“Dance, dance!” she repeated in a sinister tone.

The madwoman looked at her with wandering, expressionless eyes, while the alfereza lifted one of her arms, then the other, and shook them, but to no purpose, for Sisa did not understand. Then she began to jump about and shake herself, encouraging Sisa to imitate her. In the distance was to be heard the music of the procession playing a grave and majestic march, but Doña Consolacion danced furiously, keeping other time to other music resounding within her. Sisa gazed at her without moving, while her eyes expressed curiosity and something like a weak smile hovered around her pallid lips: the lady’s dancing amused her. The latter stopped as if ashamed, raised the whip,– that terrible whip known to thieves and soldiers, made in Ulango[111] and perfected by the alferez with twisted wires,–and said, “Now it’s your turn to dance–dance!”

She began to strike the madwoman’s bare feet gently with the whip. Sisa’s face drew up with pain and she was forced to protect herself with her hands.

“Aha, now you’re starting!” she exclaimed with savage joy, passing from lento to allegro vivace.

The afflicted Sisa gave a cry of pain and quickly raised her foot.

“You’ve got to dance, you Indian–!” The whip swung and whistled.

Sisa let herself fall to the floor and placed both hands on her knees while she gazed at her tormentor with wildly-staring eyes. Two sharp cuts of the whip on her shoulder made her stand up, and it was not merely a cry but a howl that the unfortunate woman uttered. Her thin camisa was torn, her skin broken, and the blood was flowing.

The sight of blood arouses the tiger; the blood of her victim aroused Doña Consolacion. “Dance, damn you, dance! Evil to the mother who bore you!” she cried. “Dance, or I’ll flog you to death!” She then caught Sisa with one hand and, whipping her with the other, began to dance about.

The crazy woman at last understood and followed the example by swinging her arms about awkwardly. A smile of satisfaction curled the lips of her teacher, the smile of a female Mephistopheles who succeeds in getting a great pupil. There were in it hate, disdain, jest, and cruelty; with a burst of demoniacal laughter she could not have expressed more.

Thus, absorbed in the joy of the sight, she was not aware of the arrival of her husband until he opened the door with a loud kick. The alferez appeared pale and gloomy, and when he saw what was going on he threw a terrible glance at his wife, who did not move from her place but stood smiling at him cynically.

The alferez put his hand as gently as he could on the shoulder of the strange dancer and made her stop. The crazy woman sighed and sank slowly to the floor covered with her own blood.

The silence continued. The alferez breathed heavily, while his wife watched him with questioning eyes. She picked up the whip and asked in a smooth, soft voice, “What’s the matter with you? You haven’t even wished me good evening.”

The alferez did not answer, but instead called the boy and said to him, “Take this woman away and tell Marta to get her some other clothes and attend to her. You give her something to eat and a good bed. Take care that she isn’t ill-treated! Tomorrow she’ll be taken to Señor Ibarra’s house.”

Then he closed the door carefully, bolted it, and approached his wife. “You’re tempting me to kill you!” he exclaimed, doubling up his fists.

“What’s the matter with you?” she asked, rising and drawing away from him.

“What’s the matter with me!” he yelled in a voice of thunder, letting out an oath and holding up before her a sheet of paper covered with scrawls. “Didn’t you write this letter to the alcalde saying that I’m bribed to permit gambling, huh? I don’t know why I don’t beat you to death.”

“Let’s see you! Let’s see you try it if you dare!” she replied with a jeering laugh. “The one who beats me to death has got to be more of a man than you are!”

He heard the insult, but saw the whip. Catching up a plate from the table, he threw it at her head, but she, accustomed to such fights, dodged quickly and the plate was shattered against the wall. A cup and saucer met with a similar fate.

“Coward!” she yelled; “you’re afraid to come near me!” And to exasperate him the more, she spat upon him.

The alferez went blind from rage and with a roar attempted to throw himself upon her, but she, with astonishing quickness, hit him across the face with the whip and ran hurriedly into an inner room, shutting and bolting the door violently behind her. Bellowing with rage and pain, he followed, but was only able to run against the door, which made him vomit oaths.

“Accursed be your offspring, you sow! Open, open, or I’ll break your head!” he howled, beating the door with his hands and feet.

No answer was heard, but instead the scraping of chairs and trunks as if she was building a barricade with the furniture. The house shook under the kicks and curses of the alferez.

“Don’t come in, don’t come in!” called the sour voice inside. “If you show yourself, I’ll shoot you.”

By degrees he appeared to become calm and contented himself with walking up and down the room like a wild beast in its cage.

“Go out into the street and cool off your head!” the woman continued to jeer at him, as she now seemed to have completed her preparations for defense.

“I swear that if I catch you, even God won’t save you, you old sow!”

“Yes, now you can say what you like. You didn’t want me to go to mass! You didn’t let me attend to my religious duties!” she answered with such sarcasm as only she knew how to use.

The alferez put on his helmet, arranged his clothing a little, and went out with heavy steps, but returned after a few minutes without making the least noise, having taken off his shoes. The servants, accustomed to these brawls, were usually bored, but this novelty of the shoes attracted their attention, so they winked to one another. The alferez sat down quietly in a chair at the side of the Sublime Port and had the patience to wait for more than half an hour.

“Have you really gone out or are you still there, old goat?” asked the voice from time to time, changing the epithets and raising the tone. At last she began to take away the furniture piece by piece. He heard the noise and smiled.

“Boy, has your master gone out?” cried Doña Consolacion.

At a sign from the alferez the boy answered, “Yes, señora, he’s gone out.”

A gleeful laugh was heard from her as she pulled back the bolt. Slowly her husband arose, the door opened a little way–

A yell, the sound of a falling body, oaths, howls, curses, blows, hoarse voices–who can tell what took place in the darkness of that room?

As the boy went out into the kitchen he made a significant sign to the cook, who said to him, “You’ll pay for that.”

“I? In any case the whole town will! She asked me if he had gone out, not if he had come back!”






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