Noli Me Tangere: Chapter 52 – The Cards of the Dead and the Shadows

The moon was hidden in a cloudy sky while a cold wind, precursor of the approaching December, swept the dry leaves and dust about in the narrow pathway leading to the cemetery. Three shadowy forms were conversing in low tones under the arch of the gateway.

“Have you spoken to Elias?” asked a voice.

“No, you know how reserved and circumspect he is. But he ought to be one of us. Don Crisostomo saved his life.”

“That’s why I joined,” said the first voice. “Don Crisostomo had my wife cured in the house of a doctor in Manila. I’ll look after the convento to settle some old scores with the curate.”

“And we’ll take care of the barracks to show the civil-guards that our father had sons.”

“How many of us will there be?”

“Five, and five will be enough. Don Crisostomo’s servant, though, says there’ll be twenty of us.”

“What if you don’t succeed?”

“Hist!” exclaimed one of the shadows, and all fell silent.

In the semi-obscurity a shadowy figure was seen to approach, sneaking along by the fence. From time to time it stopped as if to look back. Nor was reason for this movement lacking, since some twenty paces behind it came another figure, larger and apparently darker than the first, but so lightly did it touch the ground that it vanished as rapidly as though the earth had swallowed it every time the first shadow paused and turned.

“They’re following me,” muttered the first figure. “Can it be the civil-guards? Did the senior sacristan lie?”

“They said that they would meet here,” thought the second shadow. “Some mischief must be on foot when the two brothers conceal it from me.”

At length the first shadow reached the gateway of the cemetery. The three who were already there stepped forward.

“Is that you?”

“Is that you?”

“We must scatter, for they’ve followed me. Tomorrow you’ll get the arms and tomorrow night is the time. The cry is, ‘Viva Don Crisostomo!’ Go!”

The three shadows disappeared behind the stone walls. The later arrival hid in the hollow of the gateway and waited silently. “Let’s see who’s following me,” he thought.

The second shadow came up very cautiously and paused as if to look about him. “I’m late,” he muttered, “but perhaps they will return.”

A thin fine rain, which threatened to last, began to fall, so it occurred to him to take refuge under the gateway. Naturally, he ran against the other.

“Ah! Who are you?” asked the latest arrival in a rough tone.

“Who are you?” returned the other calmly, after which there followed a moment’s pause as each tried to recognize the other’s voice and to make out his features.

“What are you waiting here for?” asked he of the rough voice.

“For the clock to strike eight so that I can play cards with the dead. I want to win something tonight,” answered the other in a natural tone. “And you, what have you come for?”

“For–for the same purpose.”

“Abá! I’m glad of that, I’ll not be alone. I’ve brought cards. At the first stroke of the bell I’ll make the lay, at the second I’ll deal. The cards that move are the cards of the dead and we’ll have to cut for them.

Have you brought cards?”


“Then how–”

“It’s simple enough–just as you’re going to deal for them, so I expect them to play for me.”

“But what if the dead don’t play?”

“What can we do? Gambling hasn’t yet been made compulsory among the dead.”

A short silence ensued.

“Are you armed? How are you going to fight with the dead?”

“With my fists,” answered the larger of the two.

“Oh, the devil! Now I remember–the dead won’t bet when there’s more than one living person, and there are two of us.”

“Is that right? Well, I don’t want to leave.”

“Nor I. I’m short of money,” answered the smaller. “But let’s do this: let’s play for it, the one who loses to leave.”

“All right,” agreed the other, rather ungraciously. “Then let’s get inside. Have you any matches?” They went in to seek in the semi-obscurity for a suitable place and soon found a niche in which they could sit. The shorter took some cards from his salakot, while the other struck a match, in the light from which they stared at each other, but, from the expressions on their faces, apparently without recognition. Nevertheless, we can recognize in the taller and deep-voiced one Elias and in the shorter one, from the scar on his cheek, Lucas.

“Cut!” called Lucas, still staring at the other. He pushed aside some bones that were in the niche and dealt an ace and a jack.

Elias lighted match after match. “On the jack!” he said, and to indicate the card placed a vertebra on top of it.

“Play!” called Lucas, as he dealt an ace with the fourth or fifth card. “You’ve lost,” he added. “Now leave me alone so that I can try to make a raise.”

Elias moved away without a word and was soon swallowed up in the darkness.

Several minutes later the church-clock struck eight and the bell announced the hour of the souls, but Lucas invited no one to play nor did he call on the dead, as the superstition directs; instead, he took off his hat and muttered a few prayers, crossing and recrossing himself with the same fervor with which, at that same moment, the leader of the Brotherhood of the Holy Rosary was going through a similar performance.

Throughout the night a drizzling rain continued to fall. By nine o’clock the streets were dark and solitary. The coconut-oil lanterns, which the inhabitants were required to hang out, scarcely illuminated a small circle around each, seeming to be lighted only to render the darkness more apparent. Two civil-guards paced back and forth in the street near the church.

“It’s cold!” said one in Tagalog with a Visayan accent. “We haven’t caught any sacristan, so there is no one to repair the alferez’s chicken-coop. They’re all scared out by the death of that other one. This makes me tired.”

“Me, too,” answered the other. “No one commits robbery, no one raises a disturbance, but, thank God, they say that Elias is in town. The alferez says that whoever catches him will be exempt from floggings for three months.”

“Aha! Do you remember his description?” asked the Visayan.

“I should say so! Height: tall, according to the alferez, medium, according to Padre Damaso; color, brown; eyes, black; nose, ordinary; beard, none; hair, black.”

“Aha! But special marks?”

“Black shirt, black pantaloons, wood-cutter.”

“Aha, he won’t get away from me! I think I see him now.”

“I wouldn’t mistake him for any one else, even though he might look like him.”

Thus the two soldiers continued on their round.

By the light of the lanterns we may again see two shadowy figures moving cautiously along, one behind the other. An energetic “Quién vive?” stops both, and the first answers, “España!” in a trembling voice.

The soldiers seize him and hustle him toward a lantern to examine him. It is Lucas, but the soldiers seem to be in doubt, questioning each other with their eyes.

“The alferez didn’t say that he had a scar,” whispered the Visayan. “Where you going?”

“To order a mass for tomorrow.”

“Haven’t you seen Elias?”

“I don’t know him, sir,” answered Lucas.

“I didn’t ask you if you know him, you fool! Neither do we know him. I’m asking you if you’ve seen him.”

“No, sir.”

“Listen, I’ll describe him: Height, sometimes tall, sometimes medium; hair and eyes, black; all the other features, ordinary,” recited the Visayan. “Now do you know him?”

“No, sir,” replied Lucas stupidly.

“Then get away from here! Brute! Dolt!” And they gave him a shove.

“Do you know why Elias is tall to the alferez and of medium height to the curate?” asked the Tagalog thoughtfully.

“No,” answered the Visayan.

“Because the alferez was down in the mudhole when he saw him and the curate was on foot.”

“That’s right!” exclaimed the Visayan. “You’re talented–blow is it that you’re a civil-guard?”

“I wasn’t always one; I was a smuggler,” answered the Tagalog with a touch of pride.

But another shadowy figure diverted their attention. They challenged this one also and took the man to the light.

This time it was the real Elias.

“Where you going?”

“To look for a man, sir, who beat and threatened my brother. He has a scar on his face and is called Elias.”

“Aha!” exclaimed the two guards, gazing at each other in astonishment, as they started on the run toward the church, where Lucas had disappeared a few moments before.






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