The vesper bells are ringing, and at the holy sound all pause, drop their tasks, and uncover. The laborer returning from the fields ceases the song with which he was pacing his carabao and murmurs a prayer, the women in the street cross themselves and move their lips affectedly so that none may doubt their piety, a man stops caressing his game-cock and recites the angelus to bring better luck, while inside the houses they pray aloud. Every sound but that of the Ave Maria dies away, becomes hushed.
Nevertheless, the curate, without his hat, rushes across the street, to the scandalizing of many old women, and, greater scandal still, directs his steps toward the house of the alferez. The devout women then think it time to cease the movement of their lips in order to kiss the curate’s hand, but Padre Salvi takes no notice of them. This evening he finds no pleasure in placing his bony hand on his Christian nose that he may slip it down dissemblingly (as DoÃ±a Consolacion has observed) over the bosom of the attractive young woman who may have bent over to receive his blessing. Some important matter must be engaging his attention when he thus forgets his own interests and those of the Church!
In fact, he rushes headlong up the stairway and knocks impatiently at the alferez’s door. The latter puts in his appearance, scowling, followed by his better half, who smiles like one of the damned.
“Ah, Padre, I was just going over to see you. That old goat of yours–”
“I have a very important matter–”
“I can’t stand for his running about and breaking down the fence. I’ll shoot him if he comes back!”
“That is, if you are alive tomorrow!” exclaimed the panting curate as he made his way toward the sala.
“What, do you think that puny doll will kill me? I’ll bust him with a kick!”
Padre Salvi stepped backward with an involuntary glance toward the alferez’s feet. “Whom are you talking about?” he asked tremblingly.
“About whom would I talk but that simpleton who has challenged me to a duel with revolvers at a hundred paces?”
“Ah!” sighed the curate, then he added, “I’ve come to talk to you about a very urgent matter.”
“Enough of urgent matters! It’ll be like that affair of the two boys.”
Had the light been other than from coconut oil and the lamp globe not so dirty, the alferez would have noticed the curate’s pallor.
“Now this is a serious matter, which concerns the lives of all of us,” declared Padre Salvi in a low voice.
“A serious matter?” echoed the alferez, turning pale. “Can that boy shoot straight?”
“I’m not talking about him.”
The friar made a sign toward the door, which the alferez closed in his own way–with a kick, for he had found his hands superfluous and had lost nothing by ceasing to be bimanous.
A curse and a roar sounded outside. “Brute, you’ve split my forehead open!” yelled his wife.
“Now, unburden yourself,” he said calmly to the curate.
The latter stared at him for a space, then asked in the nasal, droning voice of the preacher, “Didn’t you see me come–running?”
“Sure! I thought you’d lost something.”
“Well, now,” continued the curate, without heeding the alferez’s rudeness, “when I fail thus in my duty, it’s because there are grave reasons.”
“Well, what else?” asked the other, tapping the floor with his foot.
“Then why did you come in such a hurry?”
The curate drew nearer to him and asked mysteriously, “Haven’t– you–heard–anything?”
The alferez shrugged his shoulders.
“You admit that you know absolutely nothing?”
“Do you want to talk about Elias, who put away your senior sacristan last night?” was the retort.
“No, I’m not talking about those matters,” answered the curate ill-naturedly. “I’m talking about a great danger.”
“Well, damn it, out with it!”
“Come,” said the friar slowly and disdainfully, “you see once more how important we ecclesiastics are. The meanest lay brother is worth as much as a regiment, while a curate–”
Then he added in a low and mysterious tone, “I’ve discovered a big conspiracy!”
The alferez started up and gazed in astonishment at the friar.
“A terrible and well-organized plot, which will be carried out this very night.”
“This very night!” exclaimed the alferez, pushing the curate aside and running to his revolver and sword hanging on the wall.
“Who’ll I arrest? Who’ll I arrest?” he cried.
“Calm yourself! There is still time, thanks to the promptness with which I have acted. We have till eight o’clock.”
“I’ll shoot all of them!”
“Listen! This afternoon a woman whose name I can’t reveal (it’s a secret of the confessional) came to me and told everything. At eight o’clock they will seize the barracks by surprise, plunder the convento, capture the police boat, and murder all of us Spaniards.”
The alferez was stupefied.
“The woman did not tell me any more than this,” added the curate.
“She didn’t tell any more? Then I’ll arrest her!”
“I can’t consent to that. The bar of penitence is the throne of the God of mercies.”
“There’s neither God nor mercies that amount to anything! I’ll arrest her!”
“You’re losing your head! What you must do is to get yourself ready. Muster your soldiers quietly and put them in ambush, send me four guards for the convento, and notify the men in charge of the boat.”
“The boat isn’t here. I’ll ask for help from the other sections.”
“No, for then the plotters would be warned and would not carry out their plans. What we must do is to catch them alive and make them talk –I mean, you’ll make them talk, since I, as a priest, must not meddle in such matters. Listen, here’s where you win crosses and stars. I ask only that you make due acknowledgment that it was I who warned you.”
“It’ll be acknowledged, Padre, it’ll be acknowledged–and perhaps you’ll get a miter!” answered the glowing alferez, glancing at the cuffs of his uniform.
“So, you send me four guards in plain clothes, eh? Be discreet, and tonight at eight o’clock it’ll rain stars and crosses.”
While all this was taking place, a man ran along the road leading to Ibarra’s house and rushed up the stairway.
“Is your master here?” the voice of Elias called to a servant.
“He’s in his study at work.”
Ibarra, to divert the impatience that he felt while waiting for the time when he could make his explanations to Maria Clara, had set himself to work in his laboratory.
“Ah, that you, Elias?” he exclaimed. “I was thinking about you. Yesterday I forgot to ask you the name of that Spaniard in whose house your grandfather lived.”
“Let’s not talk about me, sir–”
“Look,” continued Ibarra, not noticing the youth’s agitation, while he placed a piece of bamboo over a flame, “I’ve made a great discovery. This bamboo is incombustible.”
“It’s not a question of bamboo now, sir, it’s a question of your collecting your papers and fleeing at this very moment.”
Ibarra glanced at him in surprise and, on seeing the gravity of his countenance, dropped the object that he held in his hands.
“Burn everything that may compromise you and within an hour put yourself in a place of safety.”
“Why?” Ibarra was at length able to ask.
“Put all your valuables in a safe place–”
“Burn every letter written by you or to you–the most innocent thing may be wrongly construed–”
“But why all this?”
“Why! Because I’ve just discovered a plot that is to be attributed to you in order to ruin you.”
“A plot? Who is forming it?”
“I haven’t been able to discover the author of it, but just a moment ago I talked with one of the poor dupes who are paid to carry it out, and I wasn’t able to dissuade him.”
“But he–didn’t he tell you who is paying him?”
“Yes! Under a pledge of secrecy he said that it was you.”
“My God!” exclaimed the terrified Ibarra.
“There’s no doubt of it, sir. Don’t lose any time, for the plot will probably be carried out this very night.”
Ibarra, with his hands on his head and his eyes staring unnaturally, seemed not to hear him.
“The blow cannot be averted,” continued Elias. “I’ve come late, I don’t know who the leaders are. Save yourself, sir, save yourself for your country’s sake!”
“Whither shall I flee? She expects me tonight!” exclaimed Ibarra, thinking of Maria Clara.
“To any town whatsoever, to Manila, to the house of some official, but anywhere so that they may not say that you are directing this movement.”
“Suppose that I myself report the plot?”
“You an informer!” exclaimed Elias, stepping back and staring at him. “You would appear as a traitor and coward in the eyes of the plotters and faint-hearted in the eyes of others. They would say that you planned the whole thing to curry favor. They would say–”
“But what’s to be done?”
“I’ve already told you. Destroy every document that relates to your affairs, flee, and await the outcome.”
“And Maria Clara?” exclaimed the young man. “No, I’ll die first!”
Elias wrung his hands, saying, “Well then, at least parry the blow. Prepare for the time when they accuse you.”
Ibarra gazed about him in bewilderment. “Then help me. There in that writing-desk are all the letters of my family. Select those of my father, which are perhaps the ones that may compromise me. Read the signatures.”
So the bewildered and stupefied young man opened and shut boxes, collected papers, read letters hurriedly, tearing up some and laying others aside. He took down some books and began to turn their leaves.
Elias did the same, if not so excitedly, yet with equal eagerness. But suddenly he paused, his eyes bulged, he turned the paper in his hand over and over, then asked in a trembling voice:
“Was your family acquainted with Don Pedro Eibarramendia?”
“I should say so!” answered Ibarra, as he opened a chest and took out a bundle of papers. “He was my great-grandfather.”
“Your great-grandfather Don Pedro Eibarramendia?” again asked Elias with changed and livid features.
“Yes,” replied Ibarra absently, “we shortened the surname; it was too long.”
“Was he a Basque?” demanded Elias, approaching him.
“Yes, a Basque–but what’s the matter?” asked Ibarra in surprise.
Clenching his fists and pressing them to his forehead, Elias glared at Crisostomo, who recoiled when he saw the expression on the other’s face. “Do you know who Don Pedro Eibarramendia was?” he asked between his teeth. “Don Pedro Eibarramendia was the villain who falsely accused my grandfather and caused all our misfortunes. I have sought for that name and God has revealed it to me! Render me now an accounting for our misfortunes!”
Elias caught and shook the arm of Crisostomo, who gazed at him in terror. In a voice that was bitter and trembling with hate, he said, “Look at me well, look at one who has suffered and you live, you live, you have wealth, a home, reputation–you live, you live!”
Beside himself, he ran to a small collection of arms and snatched up a dagger. But scarcely had he done so when he let it fall again and stared like a madman at the motionless Ibarra.
“What was I about to do?” he muttered, fleeing from the house.