Noli Me Tangere: Chapter 40 – Right and Might

Ten o’clock at night: the last rockets rose lazily in the dark sky where a few paper balloons recently inflated with smoke and hot air still glimmered like new stars. Some of those adorned with fireworks took fire, threatening all the houses, so there might be seen on the ridges of the roofs men armed with pails of water and long poles with pieces of cloth on the ends. Their black silhouettes stood out in the vague clearness of the air like phantoms that had descended from space to witness the rejoicings of men. Many pieces of fireworks of fantastic shapes–wheels, castles, bulls, carabaos–had been set off, surpassing in beauty and grandeur anything ever before seen by the inhabitants of San Diego.

Now the people were moving in crowds toward the plaza to attend the theater for the last time, Here and there might be seen Bengal lights fantastically illuminating the merry groups while the boys were availing themselves of torches to hunt in the grass for unexploded bombs and other remnants that could still be used. But soon the music gave the signal and all abandoned the open places.

The great stage was brilliantly illuminated. Thousands of lights surrounded the posts, hung from the roof, or sowed the floor with pyramidal clusters. An alguazil was looking after these, and when he came forward to attend to them the crowd shouted at him and whistled, “There he is! there he is!”

In front of the curtain the orchestra players were tuning their instruments and playing preludes of airs. Behind them was the space spoken of by the correspondent in his letter, where the leading citizens of the town, the Spaniards, and the rich visitors occupied rows of chairs. The general public, the nameless rabble, filled up the rest of the place, some of them bringing benches on their shoulders not so much for seats as to make, up for their lack of stature. This provoked noisy protests on the part of the benchless, so the offenders got down at once; but before long they were up again as if nothing had happened.

Goings and comings, cries, exclamations, bursts of laughter, a serpent-cracker turned loose, a firecracker set off–all contributed to swell the uproar. Here a bench had a leg broken off and the people fell to the ground amid the laughter of the crowd. They were visitors who had come from afar to observe and now found themselves the observed. Over there they quarreled and disputed over a seat, a little farther on was heard the noise of breaking glass; it was Andeng carrying refreshments and drinks, holding the wide tray carefully with both hands, but by chance she had met her sweetheart, who tried to take advantage of the situation.

The teniente-mayor, Don Filipo, presided over the show, as the gobernadorcillo was fond of monte. He was talking with old Tasio. “What can I do? The alcalde was unwilling to accept my resignation. ‘Don’t you feel strong enough to attend to your duties?’ he asked me.”

“How did you answer him?”

“‘Señor Alcalde,’ I answered, ‘the strength of a teniente-mayor, however insignificant it may be, is like all other authority it emanates from higher spheres. The King himself receives his strength from the people and the people theirs from God. That is exactly what I lack, Señor Alcalde.’ But he did not care to listen to me, telling me that we would talk about it after the fiesta.”

“Then may God help you!” said the old man, starting away.

“Don’t you want to see the show?”

“Thanks, no! For dreams and nonsense I am sufficient unto myself,” the Sage answered with a sarcastic smile. “But now I think of it, has your attention never been drawn to the character of our people? Peaceful, yet fond of warlike shows and bloody fights; democratic, yet adoring emperors, kings, and princes; irreligious, yet impoverishing itself by costly religious pageants. Our women have gentle natures yet go wild with joy when a princess flourishes a lance. Do you know to what it is due? Well–”

The arrival of Maria Clara and her friends put an end to this conversation. Don Filipo met them and ushered them to their seats. Behind them came the curate with another Franciscan and some Spaniards. Following the priests were a number of the townsmen who make it their business to escort the friars. “May God reward them also in the next life,” muttered old Tasio as he went away.

The play began with Chananay and Marianito in Crispino é la comare. All now had their eyes and ears turned to the stage, all but one: Padre Salvi, who seemed to have gone there for no other purpose than that of watching Maria Clara, whose sadness gave to her beauty an air so ideal and interesting that it was easy to understand how she might be looked upon with rapture. But the eyes of the Franciscan, deeply hidden in their sunken sockets, spoke nothing of rapture. In that gloomy gaze was to be read something desperately sad–with such eyes Cain might have gazed from afar on the Paradise whose delights his mother pictured to him!

The first scene was over when Ibarra entered. His appearance caused a murmur, and attention was fixed on him and the curate. But the young man seemed not to notice anything as he greeted Maria Clara and her friends in a natural way and took a seat beside them.

The only one who spoke to him was Sinang. “Did you see the fireworks?” she asked.

“No, little friend, I had to go with the Captain-General.”

“Well, that’s a shame! The curate was with us and told us stories of the damned–can you imagine it!–to fill us with fear so that we might not enjoy ourselves–can you imagine it!”

The curate arose and approached Don Filipo, with whom he began an animated conversation. The former spoke in a nervous manner, the latter in a low, measured voice.

“I’m sorry that I can’t please your Reverence,” said Don Filipo, “but Señor Ibarra is one of the heaviest contributors and has a right to be here as long as he doesn’t disturb the peace.”

“But isn’t it disturbing the peace to scandalize good Christians? It’s letting a wolf enter the fold. You will answer for this to God and the authorities!”

“I always answer for the actions that spring from my own will, Padre,” replied Don Filipo with a slight bow. “But my little authority does not empower me to mix in religious affairs. Those who wish to avoid contact with him need not talk to him. Señor Ibarra forces himself on no one.”

“But it’s giving opportunity for danger, and he who loves danger perishes in it.”

“I don’t see any danger, Padre. The alcalde and the Captain-General, my superior officers, have been talking with him all the afternoon and it’s not for me to teach them a lesson.”

“If you don’t put him out of here, we’ll leave.”

“I’m very sorry, but I can’t put any one out of here.” The curate repented of his threat, but it was too late to retract, so he made a sign to his companion, who arose with regret, and the two went out together. The persons attached to them followed their example, casting looks of hatred at Ibarra.

The murmurs and whispers increased. A number of people approached the young man and said to him, “We’re with you, don’t take any notice of them.”

“Whom do you mean by them?” Ibarra asked in surprise.

“Those who’ve just left to avoid contact with you.”

“Left to avoid contact with me?”

“Yes, they say that you’re excommunicated.”

“Excommunicated?” The astonished youth did not know what to say. He looked about him and saw that Maria Clara was hiding her face behind her fan. “But is it possible?” he exclaimed finally. “Are we still in the Dark Ages? So–”

He approached the young women and said with a change of tone, “Excuse me, I’ve forgotten an engagement. I’ll be back to see you home.”

“Stay!” Sinang said to him. “Yeyeng is going to dance La Calandria. She dances divinely.”

“I can’t, little friend, but I’ll be back.” The uproar increased.

Yeyeng appeared fancifully dressed, with the “Da usté su permiso?” and Carvajal was answering her, “Pase usté adelante,” when two soldiers of the Civil Guard went up to Don Filipo and ordered him to stop the performance.

“Why?” asked the teniente-mayor in surprise.

“Because the alferez and his wife have been fighting and can’t sleep.”

“Tell the alferez that we have permission from the alcalde and that against such permission no one in the town has any authority, not even the gobernadorcillo himself, and he is my only superior.”

“Well, the show must stop!” repeated the soldiers. Don Filipo turned his back and they went away. In order not to disturb the merriment he told no one about the incident.

After the selection of vaudeville, which was loudly applauded, the Prince Villardo presented himself, challenging to mortal combat the Moros who held his father prisoner. The hero threatened to cut off all their heads at a single stroke and send them to the moon, but fortunately for the Moros, who were disposing themselves for the combat, a tumult arose. The orchestra suddenly ceased playing, threw their instruments away, and jumped up on the stage. The valiant Villardo, not expecting them and taking them for allies of the Moros, dropped his sword and shield, and started to run. The Moros, seeing that such a doughty Christian was fleeing, did not consider it improper to imitate him. Cries, groans, prayers, oaths were heard, while the people ran and pushed one another about. The lights were extinguished, blazing lamps were thrown into the air. “Tulisanes! Tulisanes!” cried some. “Fire, fire! Robbers!” shouted others. Women and children wept, benches and spectators were rolled together on the ground amid the general pandemonium.

The cause of all this uproar was two civil-guards, clubs in hand, chasing the musicians in order to break up the performance. The teniente-mayor, with the aid of the cuadrilleros, who were armed with old sabers, managed at length to arrest them, in spite of their resistance.

“Take them to the town hall!” cried Don Filipo. “Take care that they don’t get away!”

Ibarra had returned to look for Maria Clara. The frightened girls clung to him pale and trembling while Aunt Isabel recited the Latin litany.

When the people were somewhat calmed down from their fright and had learned the cause of the disturbance, they were beside themselves with indignation. Stones rained on the squad of cuadrilleros who were conducting the two offenders from the scene, and there were even those who proposed to set fire to the barracks of the Civil Guard so as to roast Doña Consolacion along with the alferez.

“That’s what they’re good for!” cried a woman, doubling up her fists and stretching out her arms. “To disturb the town! They don’t chase any but honest folks! Out yonder are the tulisanes and the gamblers. Let’s set fire to the barracks!”

One man was beating himself on the arm and begging for confession. Plaintive sounds issued from under the overturned benches –it was a poor musician. The stage was crowded with actors and spectators, all talking at the same time. There was Chananay dressed as Leonor in Il Trovatore, talking in the language of the markets to Ratia in the costume of a schoolmaster; Yeyeng, wrapped in a silk shawl, was clinging to the Prince Villardo; while Balbino and the Moros were exerting themselves to console the more or less injured musicians.[112] Several Spaniards went from group to group haranguing every one they met.

A large crowd was forming, whose intention Don Filipo seemed to be aware of, for he ran to stop them. “Don’t disturb the peace!” he cried. “Tomorrow we’ll ask for an accounting and we’ll get justice. I’ll answer for it that we get justice!”

“No!” was the reply of several. “They did the same thing in Kalamba,[113] the same promise was made, but the alcalde did nothing. We’ll take the law into our own hands! To the barracks!”

In vain the teniente-mayor pleaded with them. The crowd maintained its hostile attitude, so he looked about him for help and noticed Ibarra.

“Señor Ibarra, as a favor! Restrain them while I get some cuadrilleros.”

“What can I do?” asked the perplexed youth, but the teniente-mayor was already at a distance. He gazed about him seeking he knew not whom, when accidentally he discerned Elias, who stood impassively watching the disturbance.

Ibarra ran to him, caught him by the arm, and said to him in Spanish: “For God’s sake, do something, if you can! I can’t do anything.” The pilot must have understood him, for he disappeared in the crowd. Lively disputes and sharp exclamations were heard. Gradually the crowd began to break up, its members each taking a less hostile attitude. It was high time, indeed, for the soldiers were already rushing out armed and with fixed bayonets.

Meanwhile, what had the curate been doing? Padre Salvi had not gone to bed but had stood motionless, resting his forehead against the curtains and gazing toward the plaza. From time to time a suppressed sigh escaped him, and if the light of the lamp had not been so dim, perhaps it would have been possible to see his eyes fill with tears. Thus nearly an hour passed.

The tumult in the plaza awoke him from his reverie. With startled eyes he saw the confused movements of the people, while their voices came up to him faintly. A breathless servant informed him of what was happening. A thought shot across his mind: in the midst of confusion and tumult is the time when libertines take advantage of the consternation and weakness of woman. Every one seeks to save himself, no one thinks of any one else; a cry is not heard or heeded, women faint, are struck and fall, terror and fright heed not shame, under the cover of night–and when they are in love! He imagined that he saw Crisostomo snatch the fainting Maria Clara up in his arms and disappear into the darkness. So he went down the stairway by leaps and bounds, and without hat or cane made for the plaza like a madman. There he met some Spaniards who were reprimanding the soldiers, but on looking toward the seats that the girls had occupied he saw that they were vacant.

“Padre! Padre!” cried the Spaniards, but he paid no attention to them as he ran in the direction of Capitan Tiago’s. There he breathed more freely, for he saw in the open hallway the adorable silhouette, full of grace and soft in outline, of Maria Clara, and that of the aunt carrying cups and glasses.

“Ah!” he murmured, “it seems that she has been taken sick only.”

Aunt Isabel at that moment closed the windows and the graceful shadow was no longer to be seen. The curate moved away without heeding the crowd. He had before his eyes the beautiful form of a maiden sleeping and breathing sweetly. Her eyelids were shaded by long lashes which formed graceful curves like those of the Virgins of Raphael, the little mouth was smiling, all the features breathed forth virginity, purity, and innocence. That countenance formed a sweet vision in the midst of the white coverings of her bed like the head of a cherub among the clouds. His imagination went still further–but who can write what a burning brain can imagine?

Perhaps only the newspaper correspondent, who concluded his account of the fiesta and its accompanying incidents in the following manner:

“A thousand thanks, infinite thanks, to the opportune and active intervention of the Very Reverend Padre Fray Bernardo Salvi, who, defying every danger in the midst of the unbridled mob, without hat or cane, calmed the wrath of the crowd, using only his persuasive word with the majesty and authority that are never lacking to a minister of a Religion of Peace. With unparalleled self-abnegation this virtuous priest tore himself from sweet repose, such as every good conscience like his enjoys, and rushed to protect his flock from the least harm. The people of San Diego will hardly forget this sublime deed of their heroic Pastor, remembering to hold themselves grateful to him for all eternity!”






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