Mare Nostrum (Our Sea)
Vicente Blasco Ibanez
Part 2 out of 9
of the sun. Like fruits of the oceanic prairies, there floated past
close bunches of dark grapes, leathery capsules filled with brackish
As they approached the equator, the breeze kept falling and falling,
and the atmosphere became suffocating in the extreme. It was the zone
of calms, the ocean of dark, oily waters, in which boats remained for
entire weeks with sails limp, without the slightest breath rippling the
Clouds the color of pit coal reflected the ship's slow progress over
the sea; showers of rain like whipcord occasionally lashed the deck,
followed by a flaming sun that was soon blotted out by a new downpour.
These clouds, pregnant with cataracts, this night descending upon the
full daylight of the Atlantic, had been the terror of the ancients, and
yet, thanks to just such phenomena, the sailors could pass from one
hemisphere to another without the light wounding them to death, or the
sea scorching them like a burning glass. The heat of the equator,
raising up the water in steam, had formed a band of shade around the
earth. From other worlds it must appear like a girdle of clouds almost
similar to the sidereal rings.
In this gloomy, hot sea was the heart of the ocean, the center of the
circulatory life of the planet. The sky was a regulator that, absorbing
and returning, restored the evaporation to equilibrium. From this place
were sent forth the rains and dews to all the rest of the earth,
modifying its temperatures favorably for the development of animal and
vegetable life. There were exchanged the exhalations of the two worlds;
and, converted into clouds, the water of the southern hemisphere--the
hemisphere of the great seas with no other points of relief than the
triangular extremities of Africa and America, and the humps of the
oceanic archipelagoes--was always reinforcing the rills and rivers of
the northern hemisphere with its inhabited lands.
From this equatorial zone, the heart of the globe, come forth two
rivers of tepid water that heat the coasts of the north. They are the
two currents that issue from the Gulf of Mexico and the Java Sea. Their
enormous liquid masses, fleeing ceaselessly from the equator, govern a
vast assemblage of water from the poles that comes to occupy their
space, and these chilled and fresher currents are constantly
precipitating themselves on the electric hearth of the equator that
warms and salts them anew, renewing with its systole and diastole the
life of the world. The ocean struggles vainly to condense these two
warm currents without ever succeeding in mingling itself with them.
They are torrents of a deep blue, almost black, that flow across the
cold and green waters.
The Atlantic current, upon reaching Newfoundland, divides its arms,
sending one of them to the North Pole. With the other, weak and
exhausted by its long journey, it modifies the temperature of the
British Isles, tempering refreshingly the coasts of Norway. The Indian
current that the Japanese call, because of its color, "the black
river," circulates between the islands, maintaining for a longer time
than the other its prodigious powers of creation and agitation which
enable it to trail over the planet an enormous tail of life.
Its center is the apogee of terrestrial energy in the vegetable and
animal creations, in monsters and in fish. One of its arms, escaping
toward the south, goes on forming the mysterious world of the coral
sea. In a space as large as four continents, the polyps, strengthened
by the lukewarm water, are building up thousands of atolls, ring-shaped
islands, reefs and submarine pillars that, when united together by the
work of a thousand years, are going to create a new land, an exchange
continent in case the human species should lose its present base in
some cataclysm of Nature.
The pulse of the blue god is the tides. The earth turns towards the
moon and the stars with a sympathetic rotation like that of the flowers
that turn towards the sun. Its most movable part--the fluid mass of the
atmosphere--dilates twice daily, swelling its cavities; and this
atmospheric suction, the work of universal attraction, is reflected in
the tidal waters. Closed seas, like the Mediterranean, scarcely feel
its effects, the tides stopping at their door. But on the oceanic coast
the marine pulsation vexes the army of the waves, hurrying them daily
to their assault of the steep cliffs, making them roar with fury among
the islands, promontories and straits, and impelling them to swallow up
extensive lands which they return hours afterward.
This salty sea, like our body, that has a heart, a pulse and a
circulation of two different bloods incessantly renewed and
transformed, becomes as furious as an organic creature when the
horizontal currents of its interior come to unite themselves with the
vertical currents descending from the atmosphere. The violent passage
of the winds, the crises of evaporation, and the obscure electrical
forces produce the tempests.
These are no more than cutaneous shudderings. The storms, so deadly for
mankind, merely contract the marine epidermis while the profound mass
of its waters remains in murky calm, fulfilling its great function of
nourishing and renewing life. Father Ocean completely ignores the
existence of the human insects that dare to slip across his surface in
microscopic cockle-shells. He does not inform himself as to the
incidents that may be taking place upon the roof of his dwelling. His
life continues on,--balanced, calm, infinite, engendering millions upon
millions of beings in the thousandth part of a second.
The majesty of the Atlantic on tropical nights made Ulysses forget the
wrathful storms of its black days. In the moonlight it was an immense
plane of vivid silver streaked with serpentine shadows. Its soft
doughlike undulations, replete with microscopic life, illuminated the
nights. The infusoria, a-tremble with love, glowed with a bluish
phosphorescence. The sea was like luminous milk. The foam breaking
against the prow sparkled like broken fragments of electric globes.
When it was absolutely tranquil and the ship remained immovable with
drooping sail, the stars passing slowly from one side of the mast to
the other, the delicate medusae, that the slightest wave was able to
crush, would come to the surface floating on the waters, around the
island of wood. There were thousands of these umbrellas filing slowly
by, green, blue, rose, with a vague coloring similar to oil-lights,--a
Japanese procession seen from above, that on one side was lost in the
mystery of the black waters and incessantly reappeared on the other
The young pilot loved navigation in a sailing ship,--the struggle with
the wind, the solitude of its calms. He was far nearer the ocean here
than on the bridge of a transatlantic liner. The bark did not beat the
sea into such rabid foam. It slipped discreetly along as in the
maritime silence of the first millennium of the new-born earth. The
oceanic inhabitants approached it confidently upon seeing it rolling
like a mute and inoffensive whale.
In six years Ulysses changed his boat many times. He had learned
English, the universal language of the blue dominions, and was
refreshing himself with a study of Maury's charts--the sailors'
Bible--the patient work of an obscure genius who first snatched from
ocean and atmosphere the secret of their laws.
Desirous of exploring new seas and new lands, he did not stop in the
usual travel zones or ports, and the British, Norwegian, and North
American captains received cordially this good-mannered official so
little exacting as to salary. So Ulysses wandered over the oceans as
had the king of Ithaca over the Mediterranean, guided by a fatality
which impelled him with a rude push far from his country every time
that he proposed to return to it. The sight of a boat anchored near by
and ready to set sail for some distant port was a temptation that
invariably made him forget to return to Spain.
He traveled in filthy, old, happy-go-lucky sea-tramps, in which the
crews used to spread all the sails to the tempest, get drunk and fall
asleep, confident that the devil, friend of the brave, would awaken
them on the following morning. He lived in white boats as silent and
scrupulously clean as a Dutch home, whose captains were taking wife and
children with them, and where white-aproned stewardesses took care of
the galley and the cleaning of the floating hearthside, sharing the
dangers of the ruddy and tranquil sailors exempt from the temptation
that contact with women provokes. On Sundays, under the tropic sun or
in the ash-colored light of the northern heavens, the boatswain would
read the Bible. The men would listen thoughtfully with uncovered heads.
The women had dressed themselves in black with lace headdress and
He went to Newfoundland to load codfish. There is where the warm
current from the Gulf of Mexico meets that from the Poles. In the
meeting of these two marine rivers the infinitesimal little beings that
the gulf stream drags thither die, suddenly frozen to death, and a rain
of minute corpses descends across the waters. The cod gather there to
gorge themselves on this manna which is so abundant that a great part
of it, freed from their greedy jaws, drops to the bottom like a
snowstorm of lime.
In Iceland (the _Ultima Thule_ of the ancients), they showed Ulysses
bits of wood that the equatorial current had brought thither from the
Antilles. On the coasts of Norway, as he watched the herring during the
spawning season, he marveled at the formidable fertility of the sea.
From their refuge in the shadowy depths, these fish mount to the
surface moved by the message of the spring, desirous of taking their
part in the joy of the world. They swim one against another, close,
compact, forming strata that subdivide and float out to sea. They look
like an island just coming to the surface, or a continent beginning to
sink. In the narrow passages the shoals are so numerous that the waters
become solidified, making almost impossible the advance of a row boat.
Their number is beyond the possibilities of calculation, like the sands
and the stars.
Men and carnivorous fish fall upon them, opening great furrows of
destruction in their midst: but the breaches are closed instantly and
the living bank continues on its way, growing denser every moment, as
though defying death. The more their enemies destroy them, the more
numerous they become. The thick and close columns ceaselessly reproduce
themselves _en route_. At sunrise the waves are greasy and
viscous,--replete with life that is fermenting rapidly. For a space of
hundreds of leagues the salt ocean around them is like milk.
The fecundity of these fishy masses was placing the world in danger.
Each individual could produce up to seventy thousand eggs. In a few
generations there would be enough to fill the ocean, to make it solid,
to make it rot, extinguishing other beings, depopulating the globe....
But death was charged with saving universal life. The cetaceans bore
down upon this living density and with their insatiable mouths devoured
the nourishment by ton loads. Infinitely little fish seconded the
efforts of the marine giants, stuffing themselves with the eggs of the
herring. The most gluttonous fish, the cod and the hake, pursued these
prairies of meat, pushing them, toward the coasts and finally
The cod increases its species most prodigiously, surfeiting itself upon
hake, until the world is again menaced. The ocean might be converted
into a mass of cod, for each one can produce as many as nine million
eggs.... Mankind might be overwhelmed under the onslaught of the more
fertile fishes, and the cod might maintain immense fleets, creating,
besides, colonies and cities. Human generations might become exhausted
without succeeding in conquering this monstrous reproduction. The great
marine devourers, therefore, are those that reestablish equilibrium and
order. The sturgeon, insatiable stomach, intervenes in the oceanic
banquet, relishing in the cod the concentrated substance of armies of
herring. But this oviparous devourer of such great reproductive power
would, in turn, continue the world danger were it not that another
monster as avid in appetite as it is weak in procreation, intervenes
and cuts down with one blow the ever-increasing fecundity of the ocean.
The superior glutton is the shark,--that mouth with fins, that natatory
intestine which swallows with equal indifference the dead and the
living, flesh and wood, cleanses the waters of life and leaves a desert
behind its wriggling tail; but this destroyer brings forth only one
shark that is born armed and ferocious ready from the very first moment
to continue the paternal exploits, like a feudal heir.
Ferragut's wandering life as a pilot abounded in dramatic
adventures,--a few always standing out clearly from his many confused
recollections of exotic lands and interminable seas.
In Glasgow he embarked as second mate on an old sailing tramp that was
bound for Chile, to unload coal in Valparaiso and take on saltpeter in
Iquique. The crossing of the Atlantic was good, but upon leaving the
Malvina Islands the boat had to go out in the teeth of a torrid,
furious blast that closed the passage to the Pacific. The Straits of
Magellan are for ships that are able to avail themselves at will of a
propelling force. The sailboat needs a wide sea and a favorable wind in
order to double Cape Horn,--the utmost point of the earth, the place of
interminable and gigantic tempests.
While summer was burning in the other hemisphere, the terrible southern
winter came to meet the navigators. The boat had to turn its course to
the west, just as the winds were blowing from the west, barring its
Eight weeks passed and it was still contending with sea and tempest.
The wind carried off a complete set of sails. The wooden ship, somewhat
strained by this interminable struggle, commenced to leak, and the crew
had to work the hand-pumps night and day. Nobody was able to sleep for
many hours running. All were sick from exhaustion. The rough voice and
the oaths of the captain could hardly maintain discipline. Some of the
seamen lay down wishing to die, and had to be roused by blows.
Ulysses knew for the first time what waves really were. He saw
mountains of water, literally mountains, pouring over the hull of the
boat, their very immensity making them form great slopes on both sides
of it. When the crest of one broke upon the vessel Ferragut was able to
realize the monstrous weight of salt water. Neither stone nor iron had
the brutal blow of this liquid force that, upon breaking, fled in
torrents or dashed up in spray. They had to make openings in the
bulwarks in order to provide a vent for the crushing mass.
The southern day was a livid and foggy eclipse, repeating itself for
weeks and weeks without the slightest streak of clearing, as though the
sun had departed from the earth forever. Not a glimmer of white existed
in this tempestuous outline; always gray,--the sky, the foam, the
seagulls, the snows.... From time to time the leaden veils of the
tempest were torn asunder, leaving visible a terrifying apparition.
Once it was black mountains with glacial winding sheets from the
Straits of Beagle. And the boat tacked, fleeing away from this narrow
aquatic passageway full of perilous ledges. Another time the peaks of
Diego Ramirez, the most extreme point of the cape, loomed up before the
prow, and the bark again tacked, fleeing from this cemetery of ships.
The wind shifting, then brought their first icebergs into view and at
the same time forced them to turn back on their course in order not to
be lost in the deserts of the South Pole.
Ferragut came to believe that they would never double the Cape,
remaining forever in full tempest, like the accursed ship of the legend
of the Flying Dutchman. The captain, a regular savage of the sea,
taciturn and superstitious, shook his fist at the promontory, cursing
it as an infernal divinity. He was convinced that they would never
succeed in doubling it until it should be propitiated with a human
offering. This Englishman appeared to Ulysses like one of those
Argonauts who used to placate the wrath of the marine deities with
One night one of the crew was washed overboard and lost; the following
day a man fell from the topmast, that no one might think salvation
impossible. And as though the Southern Demon had only been awaiting
this tribute, the gale from the west ceased, the bark no longer had the
impassable barrier of a hostile sea before its prow, and was able to
enter the Pacific, anchoring twelve days later in Valparaiso.
Ulysses appreciated now the agreeable memory that this port always
leaves in the memory of sailors. It was a resting-place after the
struggle of doubling the cape; it was the joy of existence, after
having felt the blast of death; it was life again in the cafes and in
the pleasure houses, eating and drinking until surfeited, with the
stomach still suffering from the salty food and the skin still smarting
from boils due to the sea-life.
His admiring gaze followed the graceful step of the women veiled in
black who reminded him of his uncle, the doctor. In the nights of the
_remolienda_, [a popular gathering or festival in Chile] his glance
was many times distracted from the dark-hued and youthful beauties
dancing the _Zamacueca_ [the national dance of Chile.] in the middle of
the room, to the matrons swathed in black veils, who were playing the
harp and piano, accompanying the dance with languishing songs which
interested him greatly. Perhaps one of these sentimental, bearded
ladies might have been his aunt.
While his ship finished loading its cargo in Iquique, he
came in contact with the crowd of workers from the saltpeter
works,--"broken-down" [originally a term of contempt is now a
complimentary by-name] Chileans, laboring men from all countries, who
did not know how to spend their day's wages in the monotony of these
new settlements. Their intoxication diverted itself with most mistaken
magnificence. Some would let the wine run from an entire cask just to
fill a single glass. Others used the bottles of champagne lined up on
the shelves of the cafes as a target for their revolvers, paying cash
for all that they broke.
From this trip Ferragut gained a feeling of pride and confidence that
made him scornful of every danger. Afterwards he encountered the
tornadoes of the Asiatic seas, those horrible circular tempests that in
the northern hemisphere revolve from right to left, and in the south
from left to right--rapid incidents of a few hours or days at the most.
He had doubled Cape Horn in mid-winter after a struggle against the
elements that had lasted two months. He had been able to run all risks;
the ocean had exhausted for him all its surprises.... And yet,
nevertheless, the worst of his adventures occurred in a calm sea.
He had been at sea seven years and was thinking of returning once more
to Spain when, in Hamburg, he accepted the post of first mate of a
swift-sailing ship that was setting out for Cameroon and German East
Africa. A Norwegian sailor tried to dissuade him from this trip. It was
an old ship, and they had insured it for four times its value. The
captain was in league with the proprietor, who had been bankrupt many
times.... And just because this voyage was so irrational, Ulysses
hastened to embark. For him, prudence was merely a vulgarity, and
obstacles and dangers but tempted more irresistibly his reckless
One evening in the latitude of Portugal, when they were far from the
regular route of navigation, a column of smoke and flames suddenly
swept the deck, breaking through the hatchways and devouring the sails.
While Ferragut at the head of a band of negroes was trying to get
control of the fire, the captain and the German crew were escaping from
the ship in two prepared lifeboats. Ferragut felt sure that the
fugitives were laughing at seeing him run about the deck that was
beginning to warp and send up fire through all its cracks.
Without ever knowing exactly how, he found himself in a boat with some
negroes and different objects piled together with the precipitation of
flight,--a half-empty barrel of biscuits and another that contained
They rowed all one night, having behind them as their unlucky star the
burning boat that was sending its blood-red gleams across the water. At
daybreak they noted on the sun's disk some light, black, wavy lines. It
was land ... but so far away!
For two days they wandered over the moving crests and gloomy valleys of
the blue desert. Several times Ferragut collapsed in mortal lethargy,
with his feet in the water filling the bottom of the boat. The birds of
the sea were tracing spirals around this floating hearse, following it
with vigorous strokes of the wing, and uttering croakings of death. The
waves raised themselves slowly and sluggishly over the boat's edge as
though wishing to contemplate with their sea-green eyes this medley of
white and dark bodies. The ship-wrecked men rowed with nervous
desperation; then they lay down inert, recognizing the uselessness of
their efforts, lost in the great immensity.
The mate, drowsing on the hard stern, finally smiled with closed eyes.
It was all a bad dream. He was sure of awaking in his bed surrounded
with the familiar comforts of his stateroom. And when he opened his
eyes, the harsh reality made him break forth into desperate orders,
which the Africans obeyed as mechanically as though they were still
"I do not want to die!... I ought not to die!" asserted his inner
monitor in a brazen tone.
They shouted and made unavailing signals to distant boats that
disappeared from the great watery expanse without ever seeing them. Two
negroes died of the cold. Their corpses floated many hours near the
boat as if unable to separate themselves from it. Then they were drawn
under by an invisible tugging, and some triangular fins passed over the
water's surface, cutting it like knives at the same time that its
depths were darkened by swift, ebony shadows.
When at last they approached land, Ferragut realized that death was
nearer here than on the high sea. The coast rose up before them like an
immense wall. Seen from the boat it appeared to cover half the sky. The
long oceanic undulation became a ravenous wave upon encountering the
outer bulwarks of these barren islands, breaking in the depths of their
caves, and forming cascades of foam that rolled around them from top to
bottom, raising up furious columns of spray with the report of a
An irresistible hand grasped the keel, making the landing a vertical
one. Ferragut shot out like a projectile, falling in the foaming
whirlpools and having the impression, as he sank, that men and casks
together were rolling and raining into the sea.
He saw bubbling streaks of white and black hulks. He felt himself
impelled by contradictory forces. Some dragged at his head and others
at his feet in different directions, making him revolve like the hands
of a clock. Even his thoughts were working double. "It is useless to
resist," Discouragement was murmuring in his brain, while his other
half was affirming desperately, "I do not want to die!... I must not
Thus he lived through a few seconds that seemed to him like hours. He
felt the brute force of hidden friction, then a blow in the abdomen
that arrested his course between the two waters, and grasping at the
irregularities of a projecting rock, he raised his head and was able to
breathe. The wave was retreating, but another again overwhelmed him,
detaching him from the point with its foamy churning, making him leave
in the stony crevices bits of the skin of his hands, his breast, and
The oceanic suction seemed dragging him down in spite of his desperate
strokes. "It's no use! I'm going to die," half of his mind was saying
and at the same time his other mental hemisphere was reviewing with
lightning synthesis his entire life. He saw the bearded face of the
_Triton_ in this supreme instant. He saw the poet Labarta just as when
he was recounting to his godson the adventures of the old Ulysses, and
his shipwrecked struggle with the rocky peaks and waves.
Again the marine dilatation tossed him against a rock, and again he
anchored himself to it with an instinctive clutch of his hands. But
before this wave retired it hurled him desperately upon another ledge,
the refluent water passing back below him. Thus he struggled a long
time, clinging to the rocks when the sea overwhelmed him, and crawling
along upon the jutting points whenever the retiring water permitted.
Finding himself upon a projecting point of the coast, free at last from
the suction of the waves, his energy suddenly disappeared. The water
that dripped from his body was red, each time more red, spreading
itself in rivulets over the greenish irregularities of the rock. He
felt intense pain as though all his organism had lost the protection of
its covering,--his raw flesh remaining exposed to the air.
He wished to get somewhere, but over his head the coast was rearing its
stark bulk,--a concave and inaccessible wall. It would be impossible to
get away from this spot. He had saved himself from the sea only to die
stationed in front of it. His corpse would never float to an inhabited
shore. The only ones that were going to know of his death were the
enormous crabs scrambling over the rocky points, seeking their
nourishment in the surge; the sea gulls were letting themselves drop
vertically with extended wings from the heights of the steep-sloped
shore. Even the smallest crustaceans had the advantage of him.
Suddenly he felt all his weakness, all his misery, while his blood
continued crimsoning the little lakes among the rocks. Closing his eyes
to die, he saw in the darkness a pale face, hands that were deftly
weaving delicate laces, and before night should descend forever upon
his eyelids, he moaned a childish cry:
Three months afterward upon arriving at Barcelona, he found his mother
just as he had seen her during his death-agony on the Portuguese
coast.... Some fishermen had picked him up just as his life was ebbing
away. During his stay in the hospital he wrote many times in a light
and confident tone to Dona Cristina, pretending that he was detained by
important business in Lisbon.
Upon seeing him enter his home, the good lady dropped her eternal
lace-work, turned pale and greeted him with tremulous hands and
troubled eyes. She must have known the truth; and if she did not know
it, her motherly instinct told her when she saw Ulysses convalescent,
emaciated, hovering between courageous effort and physical breakdown,
just like the brave who come out of the torture chamber.
"Oh, my son!... How much longer!..."
It was time that he should bring to an end his madness for adventure,
his crazy desire for attempting the impossible, and encountering the
most absurd dangers. If he wished to follow the sea, very well. But let
it be in respectable vessels in the service of a great company,
following a career of regular promotion, and not wandering capriciously
over all seas, associated with the international lawlessness that the
ports offer for the reinforcement of crews. Remaining quietly at home
would be best of all. Oh, what happiness if he would but stay with his
And Ulysses, to the astonishment of Dona Cristina, decided to do so.
The good senora was not alone. A niece was living with her as though
she were her daughter. The sailor had only to go down in the depths of
his memory to recall a little tot of a girl four years old, creeping
and frolicking on the shore while he, with the gravity of a man, had
been listening to the old secretary of the town, as he related the past
grandeurs of the Catalunian navy.
She was the daughter of a Blanes (the only poor one in the family) who
had commanded his relatives' ships, and had died of yellow fever in a
Central American port. Ferragut had difficulty in reconciling the
little creature crawling over the sand with this same slender,
olive-colored girl wearing her mass of hair like a helmet of ebony,
with two little spirals escaping over the ears. Her eyes appeared to
have the changing tints of the sea, sometimes black and others blue, or
green and deep where the light of the sun was reflected like a point of
He was attracted by her simplicity and by the timid grace of her words
and smile. She was an irresistible novelty for this world-rover who had
only known coppery maidens with bestial roars of laughter, yellowish
Asiatics with feline gestures, or Europeans from the great ports who,
at the first words, beg for drink, and sing upon the knees of the one
who is treating, wearing his cap as a testimony of love.
Cinta, that was her name, appeared to have known him all his life. He
had been the object of her conversations with Dona Cristina when they
spent monotonous hours together weaving lace, as was the village
custom. Passing her room, Ulysses noticed there some of his own
portraits at the time when he was a simple apprentice aboard a
transatlantic liner. Cinta had doubtless taken them from her aunt's
room, for she had been admiring this adventurous cousin long before
knowing him. One evening the sailor told the two women how he had been
rescued on the coast of Portugal. The mother listened with averted
glance, and with trembling hands moving the bobbins of her lace.
Suddenly there was an outcry. It was Cinta who could not listen any
longer, and Ulysses felt flattered by her tears, her convulsive
laments, her eyes widened with an expression of terror.
Ferragut's mother had been greatly concerned regarding the future of
this poor niece. Her only salvation was matrimony, and the good senora
had focused her glances upon a certain relative a little over forty who
needed this young girl to enliven his life of mature bachelorhood. He
was the wise one of the family. Dona Cristina used to admire him
because he was not able to read without the aid of glasses, and because
he interlarded his conversation with Latin, just like the clergy. He
was teaching Latin and rhetoric in the Institute of Manresa and spoke
of being transferred some day to Barcelona,--glorious end of an
illustrious career. Every week he escaped to the capital in order to
make long visits to the notary's widow.
"He doesn't come on my account," said the good senora, "who would
bother about an old woman like me?... I tell you that he is in love
with Cinta, and it will be good luck for the child to marry a man so
wise, so serious...."
As he listened to his mother's matrimonial schemes, Ulysses began to
wonder which of a professor of rhetoric's bones a sailor might break
without incurring too much responsibility.
One day Cinta was looking all over the house for a dark, worn-out
thimble that she had been using for many years. Suddenly she ceased her
search, blushed and dropped her eyes. Her glance had met an evasive
look on her cousin's face. He had it. In Ulysses' room might be seen
ribbons, skeins of silk, an old fan--all deposited in books and papers
by the same mysterious reflex that had drawn his portraits from his
mother's to his cousin's room.
The sailor now liked to remain at home passing long hours meditating
with his elbows on the table, but at the same time attentive to the
rustling of light steps that could be heard from time to time in the
near-by hallway. He knew about everything,--spherical and rectangular
trigonometry, cosmography, the laws of the winds and the tempest, the
latest oceanographic discoveries--but who could teach him the approved
form of addressing a maiden without frightening her?... Where the deuce
could a body learn the art of proposing to a shy girl?...
For him, doubts were never very long nor painful affairs. Forward
march! Let every one get out of such matters as best he could. And one
evening when Cinta was going from the parlor to her aunt's bedroom in
order to bring her a devotional book, she collided with Ulysses in the
If she had not known him, she might have trembled for her existence.
She felt herself grasped by a pair of powerful hands that lifted her up
from the floor. Then an avid mouth stamped upon hers two aggressive
kisses. "Take that and that!"... Ferragut repented on seeing his cousin
trembling against the wall, as pale as death, her eyes filled with
"I have hurt you. I am a brute ... a brute!"
He almost fell on his knees, imploring her pardon; he clenched his
fists as if he were going to strike himself, punishing himself for his
audacity. But she would not let him continue.... "No, No!..." And while
she was moaning this protest, her arms were forming a ring around
Ulysses' neck. Her head drooped toward his, seeking the shelter of his
shoulder. A little mouth united itself modestly to that of the sailor,
and at the same time his beard was moistened with a shower of tears.
And they said no more about it.
When, weeks afterward, Dona Cristina heard her son's petition, her
first movement was one of protest. A mother listens with benevolent
appreciation to any request for the hand of her daughter, but she is
ambitious and exacting where her son is concerned. She had dreamed of
something so much more brilliant; but her indecision was short. That
timid girl was perhaps the best companion for Ulysses, after all.
Furthermore the child was well suited to be the wife of a man of the
sea, having seen its life from her infancy.... Good-by Professor!
They were married. Soon afterwards Ferragut, who was not able to lead
an inactive life, returned to the sea, but as first officer of a
transatlantic steamer that made regular trips to South America. To him
this seemed like being employed in a floating office, visiting the same
ports and invariably repeating the same duties. His mother was
extremely proud to see him in uniform. Cinta fixed her gaze on the
almanac as the wife of a clerk fixes it on the clock. She had the
certainty that when three months should have passed by she would see
him reappear, coming from the other side of the world laden down with
exotic gifts, just as a husband who returns from the office with a
bouquet bought in the street.
Upon his return from his first two voyages, she went to meet him on the
wharf, her eager glance searching for his blue coat and his cap with
its band of gold among the transatlantic passengers fluttering about
the decks, rejoicing at their arrival in Europe.
On the following trip, Dona Cristina obliged her to remain at home,
fearing that the excitement and the crowds at the harbor might affect
her approaching maternity. After that on each of his return trips
Ferragut saw a new son, although always the same one; first it was a
bundle of batiste and lace carried by a showily-uniformed nurse; then
by the time he was captain of the transatlantic liner, a little cherub
in short skirts, chubby-cheeked, with a round head covered with a silky
down, holding out its little arms to him; finally a boy who was
beginning to go to school and at sight of his father would grasp his
hard right hand, admiring him with his great eyes, as though he saw in
his person the concentrated perfection of all the forces of the
Don Pedro, the professor, continued visiting the house of Dona
Cristina, although with less assiduity. He had the resigned and coldly
wrathful attitude of the man who believes that he has arrived too late
and is convinced that his bad luck was merely the result of his
carelessness.... If he had only spoken before! His masculine
self-importance never permitted him to doubt that the young girl would
have accepted him jubilantly.
In spite of this conviction, he was not able to refrain at times from a
certain ironical aggressiveness which expressed itself by inventing
classic nicknames. The young wife of Ulysses, bending over her
lace-making, was Penelope awaiting the return of her wandering husband.
Dona Cristina accepted this nickname because she knew vaguely that
Penelope was a queen of good habits. But the day that the professor, by
logical deduction, called Cinta's son Telemachus, the grandmother
"He is named Esteban after his grandfather.... Telemachus is nothing
but a theatrical name."
On one of his voyages Ulysses took advantage of a four-hour stop in the
port of Valencia to see his godfather. From time to time he had been
receiving letters from the poet,--each one shorter and sadder,--written
in a trembling script that announced his age and increasing infirmity.
Upon entering the office Ferragut felt just like the legendary sleepers
who believe themselves awaking after a few hours of sleep when they
have really been dozing for dozens of years. Everything there was still
just as it was in his infancy:--the busts of the great poets on the top
of the book-cases, the wreaths in their glass cases, the jewels and
statuettes, prizes for successful poems--were still in their crystal
cabinets or resting on the same pedestals; the books in their
resplendent bindings formed their customary close battalions the length
of the bookcases. But the whiteness of the busts had taken on the color
of chocolate, the bronzes were reddened by oxidation, the gold had
turned greenish, and the wreaths were losing their leaves. It seemed as
though ashes might have rained down upon perpetuity.
The occupants of this spell-bound dwelling presented the same aspect of
neglect and deterioration. Ulysses found the poet thin and yellow, with
a long white beard, with one eye almost closed and the other very
widely opened. Upon seeing the young officer, broad-chested, vigorous
and bronzed, Labarta, who was huddled in a great arm chair, began to
cry with a childish hiccough as though he were weeping over the misery
of human illusions, over the brevity of a deceptive life that
necessitates continual renovation.
Ferragut found even greater difficulty in recognizing the little and
shrunken senora who was near the poet. Her flabby flesh was hanging
from her skeleton like the ragged fringe of past splendor; her head was
small; her face had the wrinkled surface of a winter apple or plum, or
of all the fruits that shrink and wither when they lose their juices.
"Dona Pepa!..." The two old people were thee-ing and thou-ing each
other with the tranquil non-morality of those that realize that they
are very near to death, and forget the tremors and scruples of a life
crumbling behind them.
The sailor shrewdly suspected that all this physical misery was the sad
finale of an absurd, happy-go-lucky and childish dietary,--sweets
serving as the basis of nutrition, great heavy rice dishes as a daily
course, watermelons and cantaloupes filling in the space between meals,
topped with ices served in enormous glasses and sending out a perfume
of honeyed snow.
The two told him, sighing, of their infirmities, which they thought
incomprehensible, attributing them to the ignorance of the doctors. It
was really the morbid wasting away that suddenly attacks people of the
abundant, food-yielding countries. Their life was one continual stream
of liquid sugar.... And yet Ferragut could easily guess the
disobedience of the two old folks to the discipline of diet, their
childish deceptions, their cunning in order to enjoy alone the fruits
and syrups which were the enchantment of their existence.
The interview was a short one. The captain had to return to the port of
Grao where his steamer was awaiting him, ready to weigh anchor for
The poet wept again, kissing his god-son. He never would see again this
Colossus who seemed to repel his weak embraces with the bellows of his
"Ulysses, my son!... Always think of Valencia.... Do for her all that
you can.... Keep her ever in mind, always Valencia!"
He promised all that the poet wished without understanding exactly what
it was that Valencia might expect from him, a simple sailor, wandering
over all the seas. Labarta wished to accompany him to the door but he
sank down in his seat, obedient to the affectionate despotism of his
companion who was always fearing the greatest catastrophes for him.
Poor Dona Pepa!... Ferragut felt inclined to laugh and to weep at the
same time upon receiving a kiss from, her withered mouth whose down had
turned into pin points. It was the kiss of an old beauty who remembers
the gallantry of a youthful lover, the kiss of a childless woman
caressing the son she might have had.
"Poor unhappy Carmelo!... He no longer writes, he no longer reads....
Ay! what will ever become of me?..."
She always spoke of the poet's failing powers with the commiseration of
a strong and healthy person, and she became terrified when thinking of
the years in which she might survive her lord. Taken up with caring for
him, she never even glanced at herself.
A year afterward, on returning from the Philippines, the captain found
a letter from his god-father awaiting him at Port Said. Dona Pepa had
died, and Labarta, working off the tearful heaviness of his low
spirits, bade her farewell in a long canticle. Ulysses ran his eyes
over the enclosed newspaper clipping containing the last verses of the
poet. The stanzas were in Castilian. A bad sign!... After that there
could be no doubt that his end must be very near.
Ferragut never again had an opportunity to see his god-father, who died
while he was on one of his trips. Upon disembarking at Barcelona, Dona
Cristina handed him a letter written by the poet almost in his
death-agony. "Valencia, my son! Always Valencia!" And after repeating
this recommendation many times, he announced that he had made his
god-son his heir.
The books, the statues, all the glorious souvenirs of the
poet-laureate, came to Barcelona to adorn the sailor's home. The little
Telemachus amused himself pulling apart the old wreaths of the
troubador, and tearing out the old prints from his volumes with the
inconsequence of a lively child whose father is very far away and who
knows that he is idolized by two indulgent ladies. Besides his
trophies, the poet left Ulysses an old house in Valencia, some real
estate and a certain amount in negotiable securities,--total, thirty
The other guardian of his infancy, the vigorous _Triton_, seemed to be
unaffected by the passing of the years. Upon his return to Barcelona,
Ferragut frequently found him installed in his home, in mute hostility
to Dona Cristina, devoting to Cinta and her son a part of the affection
that he had formerly lavished upon Ulysses alone.
He was very desirous that the little Esteban should know the home of
his great grandparents.
"You will let me have him?... You know well enough," he coaxed, "that
down in the _Marina_ men become as strong as though made of bronze.
Surely you will let me have him?..."
But he quailed before the indignant gesture of the suave Dona Cristina.
Entrust her grandson to the _Triton_, and let him awaken in him the
love of maritime adventure, as he had done with Ulysses?... Behind me,
thou blue devil!
The doctor used to wander around bewildered by the port of
Barcelona.... Too much noisy bustle, too much movement! Walking proudly
along by the side of Ulysses, he loved to recount to him the adventures
of his life as a sailor and cosmopolitan vagabond. He considered his
nephew the greatest of the Ferraguts, a true man of the sea like his
ancestors but with the title of captain;--an adventurous rover over all
oceans, as he had been, but with a place on the bridge, invested with
the absolute command that responsibility and danger confer. When
Ulysses reembarked, the _Triton_ would take himself off to his own
"It will be next time, sure!" he would say in order to console himself
for having to part with his nephew's son; and after a few months had
passed by, he would reappear, each time larger, uglier, more tanned,
with a silent smile which broke into words before Ulysses just as
tempestuous clouds break forth in thunder claps.
Upon his return from a trip to the Black Sea, Dona Cristina announced
to her son: "Your uncle has died."
The pious senora lamented as a Christian the departure of her
brother-in-law, dedicating a part of her prayers to him; but she
insisted with a certain cruelty in giving an account of his sad end,
for she had never been able to pardon his fatal intervention in the
destiny of Ulysses. He had died as he had lived,--in the sea, a victim,
of his own rashness, without confession, just like any pagan.
Another legacy thus fell to Ferragut.... His uncle had gone out
swimming one sunny, winter morning and had never come back. The old
folks on the shore had their way of explaining how the accident had
happened,--a fainting spell probably, a clash against the rocks. The
_Dotor_ was still vigorous, but the years do not pass without leaving
their footprints. Some believed that he must have had a struggle with a
shark or some other of the carnivorous fish that abound in the
Mediterranean waters. In vain the fishermen guided their skiffs through
all the twisting entrances and exits of the waters around the
promontory, exploring the gloomy caves and the lower depths of
crystalline transparency. No one was ever able to find the _Triton's_
Ferragut recalled the cortege of Aphrodite which the doctor had so
often described to him on summer evenings, by the light of the far-away
gleam of the lighthouse. Perhaps he had come upon that gay retinue of
nereids, joining it forever!
This absurd supposition that Ulysses mentally formulated with a sad and
incredulous smile, frequently recurred in the simple thoughts of many
of the people of the _Marina_.
They refused to believe in his death. A wizard is never drowned. He
must have found down below something very interesting and when he got
tired of living in the green depths, he would probably some day come
swimming back home.
No: the _Dotor_ had not died.
And for many years afterwards the women who were going along the coast
at nightfall would quicken their steps, crossing themselves upon
distinguishing on the dark waters a bit of wood or a bunch of sea weed.
They feared that suddenly would spring forth the _Triton_, bearded,
dripping, spouting, returning from his excursion into the mysterious
depths of the sea.
The name of Ulysses Ferragut began to be famous among the captains of
the Spanish ports, although the nautical adventures of his early days
contributed very little to this popularity. The most of them had
encountered greater dangers, but they appreciated him because of the
instinctive respect that energetic and simple men have for an
intelligence which they consider superior to their own. Reading nothing
except what pertained to their career, they used to speak with
consternation of the numerous books that filled Ferragut's stateroom,
many of them upon matters which appeared to them most mysterious. Some
even made inexact statements in order to enlarge the prestige of their
"He knows much.... He is a lawyer as well as a sailor."
Consideration of his fortune also contributed to the general
appreciation. He was an important share-holder of the company by which
he was employed. His companions loved to calculate with proud
exaggeration the riches of his mother, piling it up into millions.
He met friends on every ship carrying the Spanish flag, whatever might
be its home port or the nationality of its crews.
They all liked him:--the Basque captains, economical in words, rude and
sparing in affectionate discourse; the Asturian and Galician captains,
self-confident and spendthrift in strange contrast to their sobriety
and avaricious character when ashore; the Andalusian captains,
reflecting in their witty talk white Cadiz and its luminous wines; the
Valencian captains who talk of politics on the bridge, imagining that
they are going to become the navy of a future republic; and the
captains from Catalunia and Mallorca as thoroughly acquainted with
business affairs as are their ship-owners. Whenever necessity obliged
them to defend their rights, they immediately thought of Ulysses.
Nobody could write as he could.
The old mates who had worked their way up from the lower ranks, men of
the sea who had begun their career on coasting vessels and could only
with great difficulty adjust their practical knowledge to the handling
of books, used to speak of Ferragut with pride.
"They say that men of the sea are an uncultivated people.... Here they
have _Don Luis_ who is one of us. They may ask him whatever they
wish.... A real sage!"
The name of Ulysses always made them stammer. They believed it a
nickname, and not wishing to show any lack of respect, they had finally
transformed it into "Don Luis." For some of them, Ferragut's only
defect was his good luck. So far not a single boat of which he had had
command had been lost. And every sailor constantly on the sea ought to
have at least one of these misfortunes in his history in order to be a
real captain. Only landlubbers never lose their boats.
When his mother died, Ulysses was very undecided about the future, not
knowing whether to continue his sea life, or undertake something
entirely different. His relatives at Barcelona, merchants quick to
understand and appraise a fortune, added up what the notary and his
wife had left him and put with that what Labarta and the doctor had
contributed, until it amounted to a million pesetas.... And was a man
with as much money as that to go on living like a poor captain
dependent upon wages to maintain his family!...
His cousin, Joaquin Blanes, proprietor of a factory for knit goods,
urged him repeatedly to follow his example. He ought to remain on shore
and invest his capital in Catalan industry. Ulysses belonged to this
country both on his mother's side and because he was born in the
neighboring land of Valencia. There was great need of men of fortune
and energy to take part in the government. Blanes was entering local
politics with the enthusiasm of a middle-class man for novel adventure.
Cinta never said a word to influence her husband. She was the daughter
of a sailor and had accepted the life of a sailor's wife. Furthermore,
she looked upon matrimony in the light of the old familiar
traditions:--the woman absolute mistress of the interior of the home,
but trusting outside affairs to the will of the lord, the warrior, the
head of the hearth, without permitting herself opinions or objections
to their acts.
It was Ulysses, therefore, who decided to abandon the seafaring life.
Worked upon by the suggestions of his cousins, it needed only a little
dispute with one of the directors of the shipping firm to make him hand
in his resignation, and refuse to reconsider it, although urged by the
protests and entreaties of the other stockholders.
In the first months of his existence ashore, he was amazed at the
desperate immovability of everything. The world was made up of
revolting rigidity and solidity. He felt almost nauseated at seeing all
his possessions remain just where he left them, without the slightest
fluctuation, or the least bit of casual caprice.
In the mornings upon opening his eyes, he at first experienced the
sweet sensation of irresponsible liberty. Nothing affected the fate of
that house. The lives of those that were sleeping on the other floors
above and below him had not been entrusted to his vigilance.... But in
a few days he began to feel that there was something lacking, something
which had been one of the greatest satisfactions of his existence,--the
sensation of power, the enjoyment of command.
Two maids were now always hastening to him with a frightened air at the
sound of his voice, or the ringing of his bell. That was all that was
left to him who had commanded dozens of men of such ugliness of temper
that they struck terror to all beholders when they went ashore in the
ports. Nobody consulted him now, while on the sea everybody was seeking
his counsel and many times had to interrupt his sleep. The house could
go on without his making the rounds daily from the cellars to the roof,
overseeing even the slightest spigot. The women who cleaned it in the
mornings with their brooms were always obliging him to flee from his
office. He was not permitted to make any comment nor could he extend a
gold-striped arm as when he used to scold the barefooted, bare-breasted
deck-swabbers, insisting that the deck should be as clean as the
saloon. He felt himself belittled, laid to one side. He thought of
Hercules dressed as a woman and spinning wool. His love of family life
had made him renounce that of a powerful man.
Only the considerate treatment of his wife, who surrounded him with
assiduous care as though wishing to compensate for their long
separations, made the situation bearable. Furthermore, his conscience
was enjoying a certain satisfaction in being a land-father, taking much
interest in the life of his son who was beginning to prepare to enter
the institute, looking over his books, and aiding him in understanding
But even these pleasures were not of long duration. The family
gatherings in his home or at his relatives' bored him unspeakably; so
did the conversations with his cousins and nephews about profits and
business deals, or about the defects of centralized tyranny. According
to them, all the calamities of heaven and earth were coming from
Madrid. The governor of the province was the "Consul of Spain."
These merchants interrupted their criticisms only to listen in
religious silence to Wagner's music banged out on the piano by the
girls of the family. A friend with a tenor voice used to sing
_Lohengrin_ in Catalan. Enthusiasm made the most excitable roar, "the
hymn ... the hymn!" It was not possible to misunderstand. For them
there was only one hymn in existence, and in a trilling undertone they
would accompany the liturgic music of _Los Segadores_ (The Reapers).
[The revolutionary song of Catalunia, originated by a band of reapers
in the seventeenth century.]
Ulysses used to recall with homesickness his life as commander of a
transatlantic liner,--a wide, universal life of incessant and varied
horizons, and cosmopolitan crowds. He could see himself detained on
deck by groups of elegant maidens who would beg him for new dances in
the coming week. His footsteps were surrounded with white fluttering
skirts, veils that waved like colored clouds, laughter and trills,
Spanish chatter that appeared set to music:--all the frolicsome jargon
of a cage of tropical birds.
Ex-presidents of the South American republics,--generals or doctors who
were going to Europe to rest,--used to relate to him on the bridge,
with Napoleonic gravity, the principal events in their history. The
business men starting out for America confided to him their stupendous
plans:--rivers turned from their courses, railroads built across the
virgin forests, monstrous electric forces extracted from huge
waterfalls varying in breadth, cities vomited from the desert in a few
weeks, all the marvels of an adolescent world that desires to realize
whatever its youthful imagination may conceive. He was the demi-urge of
this little floating world: he disposed of joy and love as the spirit
In the scorching evenings around the equator, it was enough for him to
give an order to rouse things and beings from their brutish drowsiness.
"Let the music begin, and refreshments be served." And in a few moments
dancers would be revolving the whole length of the deck, and smiling
lips and eyes would become brilliantly alight with illusion and desire.
Behind him, his praises were always being sounded. The matrons found
him very distinguished. "It is plain to be seen that he is an
exceptional person." Stewards and crew circulated exaggerated accounts
of his riches and his studies. Some young girls sailing for Europe with
imaginations seething with romance were very much aghast to learn that
the hero was married and had a son. The solitary ladies stretched out
on a _chaise-longue,_ book in hand, upon seeing him would arrange the
corolla of their petticoats, hiding their legs with so much
precipitation that it always left them more uncovered; then fixing upon
him a languishing glance, they would begin a dialogue always in the
"How is it that any one so young as you has already become a
Ah, the misery of it!... He who had gallantly passed many years
cruising from one extreme of the Atlantic to the other with a rich,
gay, perfumed world, at times resisting feminine caprice through mere
prudence, yielding at others with the secrecy of a discreet sailor, now
found himself with no other admirers than the mediocre tribe of the
Blanes, with no other hallucinations than those which his cousin the
manufacturer might suggest, when waxing enthusiastic because the great
apostles of politics were taking a certain interest in the captain.
Every morning, on awaking, his taste now received a rude shock. The
first thing that he contemplated was a room "without personality," a
dwelling that was not characteristic of him in any way, arranged by the
maids with excessive cleanliness and a lack of logic that was
constantly changing the situation of his things.
He recalled with longing his compact and well-ordered stateroom where
there was not a piece of furniture that could escape his glance nor a
drawer whose contents he did not know down to the slightest detail. His
body was accustomed to slip without embarrassment through the spaces of
his cabin furnishings. He had adapted himself to all incoming and
outgoing angles just as the body of the mollusk adapts itself to the
winding curves of its shells. The cabin seemed formed by the secretions
of his being. It was a covering, a sheath, that went with him from one
extreme of the ocean to the other, heating itself with the high
temperature of the tropics, or becoming as cosy as an Esquimo hut on
approaching the polar seas.
His love for it was somewhat like that which the friar has for his
cell; but this cell was a secular one, and entering it after a
tempestuous night on the bridge, or a trip ashore in most curious and
foreign ports, he found it always the same, with his papers and books
untouched on the table, his clothes hanging from their hooks, his
photographs fixed on the walls. The daily spectacle of seas and lands
was always changing--the temperature, the course of the stars, and the
people that one week were bundled up in winter greatcoats, and were
clad in white the week after, hunting the heavens for the new stars of
another hemisphere.... Yet his cozy little stateroom was always the
same, as though it were the corner of a planet apart, unaffected by the
variations of this world.
Upon awaking in it, he found himself every morning enwrapped in a
greenish and bland atmosphere as though he might have been sleeping in
the bottom of an enchanted lake. The sun traced over the whiteness of
his ceiling and sheets a restless network of gold whose meshes
constantly succeeded each other. This was the reflection of the
invisible water. When his ship was immovable in the ports, there always
came in through his window the whirling noise of the cranes, the cries
of the stevedores and the voices of those who were in the neighboring
vessels. On the high sea the cool and murmuring silence of immensity
used to fill his sleeping room. A wind of infinite purity that came
perhaps from the other side of the planet--slipping past thousands of
leagues, over the salty deserts without touching a single bit of
corruption--would come stealing into Ferragut's throat like an
effervescent wine. His chest always expanded to the impulses of this
life-giving draught as his eyes roved over the sparkling, luminous blue
of the horizon.
Here in his home, the first thing that he saw through the window upon
awaking was a Catalunian edifice, rich and monstrous, like the palaces
that the hypnotist evolves in his dreams,--an amalgamation of Persian
flowers, Gothic columns, trunks of trees, with quadrupeds, reptiles and
snails among the cement foliage. The paving wafted up to him through
its drains the fetidity of sewers dry for lack of water; the balconies
shed the dust of shaken rugs; the absurd palace appropriated, with the
insolence of the new-rich, all the heaven and sun that used to belong
One night he surprised his relatives by informing them that he was
about to return to the sea. Cinta assented to this resolution in
painful silence, as though she had foreseen it long before. It was
something inevitable and fatal that she must accept. The manufacturer,
Blanes, stammered with astonishment. Return to his life of adventures,
when the great gentlemen of the district were becoming interested in
his personality!... Perhaps in the next elections they might have made
him a member of the municipal council!
Ferragut laughed at his cousin's simplicity. He wanted to command a
vessel again, but one of his own, without being obliged to consider the
restrictions of the ship owners. He could permit himself this luxury.
It would be like an enormous yacht, ready to set forth according to his
tastes and convenience, yet at the same time bringing him in untold
profits. Perhaps his son might in time become director of a maritime
company, this first ship laying the foundation of an enormous fleet in
the years to come.
He knew every port in the world, every highway of traffic, and he would
be able to find the places where, lacking transportation facilities,
they paid the highest freight rates. Until now he had been a salaried
man, brave and care-free. He was going to begin an absolutely
independent life as a speculator of the sea.
Two months afterwards he wrote from England saying that he had bought
the _Fingal_, a mail packet of three thousand tons that had made trips
twice a week between London and a port of Scotland.
Ulysses appeared highly delighted with the cheapness of his
acquisition. The _Fingal_ had been the property of a Scotch captain
who, in spite of his long illness, had never wished to give up command,
dying aboard his vessel. His heirs, inland men tired by their long
wait, were anxious to get rid of it at any price.
When the new proprietor entered the aft saloon surrounded with
staterooms,--the only habitable place in the ship,--memories of the
dead came forth to meet him. On the wall-panels were painted the heroes
of the Scotch Iliad,--the bard Ossian with his harp, Malvina with the
round arms and waving golden tresses, the undaunted warriors with their
winged helmets and protruding biceps, exchanging gashes on their
shields while awaking the echoes of the green lochs.
A deep and spongy arm chair opened its arms before a stove. There the
owner of the ship had passed his last years, sick at heart and with
swollen legs, directing from his seat a course that was repeated every
week across the foggy winter waves tossing bits of ice snatched from
the icebergs. Near the stove was a piano and upon its top an orderly
collection of musical scores yellowed by time,--_La Sonnambula, Lucia_,
Romances of Tosti, Neapolitan songs, breezy and graceful melodies that
the old chords of the instrument sent forth with the fragile and
crystalline tinkling of an old music box. The poor old captain with
sick heart and legs of stone had always turned to the sea of light for
distraction. It was music that made appear in the foggy heavens the
peaks of Sorrento covered with orange and lemon trees, and the coast of
Sicily, perfumed by its flaming flora.
Ferragut manned his boat with friendly people. His first mate was a
pilot who had begun his career in a fishing smack. He came from the
same village as Ulysses' ancestors, and he remembered the _Dotor_ with
respect and admiration. He had known this new captain when he was a
little fellow and used to go fishing with his uncle. In those days Toni
was already a sailor on a coast-trading vessel, and his superiority in
years had then justified his using the familiar thee and thou when
talking with the lad Ulysses.
Finding himself now under his orders, he wished to change his mode of
address, but the captain would not permit it. Perhaps he and Toni were
distant relatives,--all those living in that village of the _Marina_
had become related through long centuries of isolated existence and
common danger. The entire crew, from the first engineer to the lowest
seaman, showed an equal familiarity in this respect. Some were from the
same land as the captain, others had been sailing a long time under his
As shipowner, Ulysses now underwent numberless experiences whose
existence he had never before suspected. He went through the anguishing
transformation of the actor who becomes a theatrical manager, of the
author who branches out into publishing, of the engineer with a hobby
for odd inventions who becomes the proprietor of a factory. His
romantic love for the sea and its adventures was now overshadowed by
the price and consumption of coal, by the maddening competition that
lowered freight rates, and by the search for new ports with fast and
The _Fingal_ which had been rebaptized by its new proprietor with the
name of _Mare Nostrum_, in memory of his uncle, turned out to be a
dubious purchase in spite of its low price. As a navigator Ulysses had
been most enthusiastic upon beholding its high and sharp prow disposed
to confront the worst seas, the slenderness of the swift craft, its
machinery, excessively powerful for a freight steamer,--all the
conditions that had made it a mail packet for so many years. It
consumed too much fuel to be a profitable investment as a transport of
merchandise. The captain during his navigation could now think only of
the ravenous appetite of the boilers. It always seemed to him that the
_Mare Nostrum_ was speeding along with excess steam.
"Half speed!" he would shout down the tube to his first engineer.
But in spite of this and many other precautions, the expense for fuel
was enormously disproportioned to the tonnage of the vessel. The boat
was eating up all the profits. Its speed was insignificant compared
with that of a transatlantic steamer, though absurd compared with that
of the merchant vessels of great hulls and little machinery that were
going around soliciting cargo at any price, from all points.
A slave of the superiority of his vessel and in continual struggle with
it, Ferragut had to make great efforts in order to continue sailing
without actual heavy loss. All the waters of the planet now saw the
_Mare Nostrum_ specializing in the rarest kind of transportation.
Thanks to this expedient, the Spanish flag waved in ports that had
never seen it before.
Under this banner, he made trips through the solitary seas of Syria and
Asia Minor, skirting coasts where the novelty of a ship with a smoke
stack made the people of the Arabian villages run together in crowds.
He disembarked in Phoenician and Greek ports choked up with sand that
had left only a few huts at the foot of mountains of ruins, and where
columns of marble were still sticking up like trunks of lopped-off palm
trees. He anchored near to the terrible breakers of the western coast
of Africa under a sun which scorched the deck, in order to take on
board india-rubber, ostrich feathers, and elephants' tusks, brought out
in long pirogues by negro oarsmen, from a river filled with crocodiles
and hippopotamuses, and bordered by groups of huts with straw cones for
When there were no more of these extraordinary voyages, the _Mare
Nostrum_ turned its course towards South America, resigning itself to
competition in rates with the English and Scandinavians who are the
muleteers of the ocean. His tonnage and draught permitted him to sail
up the great rivers of North America, even reaching the cities of the
remote interior where rows of factory chimneys smoked on the border of
a fresh-water lake converted into a port.
He sailed up the ruddy Parana to Rosario and Colastine, in order to
load Argentine wheat; he anchored in the amber waters of Uruguay
opposite Paysandu and Fray Ventos, taking on board hides destined to
Europe and salt for the Antilles. From the Pacific he sailed up the
Guayas bordered with an equatorial vegetation, in search of cocoa from
Guayaquil. His prow cut the infinite sheet of the Amazon,--dislodging
gigantic tree-trunks dragged down by the inundations of the virgin
forest--in order to anchor opposite Para or Manaos, taking on cargoes
of tobacco and coffee. He even carried from Germany implements of war
for the revolutionists of a little republic.
These trips that in other times would have awakened Ferragut's
enthusiasm now resulted disastrously. After having paid all expenses
and lived with maddening economy, there was scarcely anything left for
the owner. Each time the freight boats were more numerous and the
transportation rates cheaper. Ulysses with his elegant _Mare Nostrum_
could not compete with the southern captains, drunken and taciturn,
eager to accept freight at any price in order to fill their miserable
transports crawling across the ocean at the speed of a tortoise.
"I can do no more," he said sadly to his mate. "I shall simply ruin my
son. If anybody will buy the _Mare Nostrum,_ I'm going to sell it."
On one of his fruitless expeditions, just when he was most discouraged,
some unexpected news changed the situation for him. They had just
arrived at Teneriffe with maize and bales of dry alfalfa from
When Toni returned aboard after having cleared the vessel, he shouted
in Valencian, the language of intimacy, "War, _Che_!"
Ulysses, who was pacing the bridge, received the news with
indifference. "War?... What war is that?..." But upon learning that
Germany and Austria had begun hostilities with France and Russia, and
that England was just intervening in behalf of Belgium, the captain
began quickly to calculate the political consequences of this
conflagration. He could see nothing else.
Toni, less disinterested, spoke of the future of the vessel.... Their
misery was at last at an end! Freightage at thirteen shillings a ton
was going to be henceforth but a disgraceful memory. They would no
longer have to plead for freight from port to port as though begging
alms. Now they were on the point of achieving importance, and were
going to find themselves solicited by consignors and disdainful
merchants. The _Mare Nostrum_ was going to be worth its weight in gold.
Such predictions, though Ferragut refused to accept them, began to be
fulfilled in a very short time. Ships on the ocean routes suddenly
became very scarce. Some of them were taking refuge in the nearest
neutral ports, fearing the enemy's cruisers. The greater part were
mobilized by their governments for the enormous transportation of
material that modern war exacts. The German corsairs, craftily taking
advantage of the situation, were increasing with their captures the
panic of the merchant marine.
The price of freight leaped from thirteen shillings a ton to fifty,
then to seventy, and a few days later to a hundred. It couldn't climb
any further, according to Captain Ferragut.
"It will climb higher yet," affirmed the first officer with cruel joy.
"We shall see tonnage at a hundred and fifty, at two hundred.... We are
going to become rich!..."
And Toni always used the plural in speaking of the future riches
without its ever occurring to him to ask his captain a penny more than
the forty-five dollars that he was receiving each month. Ferragut's
fortune and that of the ship, he invariably looked upon as his own,
considering himself lucky if he was not out of tobacco, and could send
his entire wages home to his wife and children living down there in the
His ambition was that of all modest sailors--to buy a plot of land and
become an agriculturist in his old age. The Basque pilots used to dream
of prairies and apple orchards, a little cottage on a peak and many
cows. He pictured to himself a vineyard on the coast, a little white
dwelling with an arbor under whose shade he could smoke his pipe while
all his family, children and grandchildren, were spreading out the
harvest of raisins on the frame-hurdles.
A familiar admiration like that of an ancient squire for his paladin,
or of an old subaltern for a superior officer, bound him to Ferragut.
The books that filled the captain's stateroom recalled his agonies upon
being examined in Cartagena for his license as a pilot. The grave
gentlemen of the tribunal had made him turn pale and stutter like a
child before the logarithms and formulas of trigonometry. But just let
them consult _him_ on practical matters and his skill as master of a
bark habituated to all the dangers of the sea, and he would reply with
the self-possession of a sage!
In the most difficult perils,--days of storm and sinister shoals in the
neighborhood of the treacherous coasts, Ferragut could decide to rest
only when Toni replaced him on the bridge. With him, he had no fear
that, through carelessness, a wave would sweep across the deck and stop
the machinery, or that an invisible ledge would drive its stony point
into the vitals of the vessel. He held the helm to the course
indicated. Silent and immovable he stood, as though sleeping on his
feet; but at the right moment he always uttered the brief word of
He was very skinny, with the dried up leanness of the bronzed
Mediterranean. The salt wind more than his years had tanned his face,
wrinkling it with deep crevices. A capricious coloring had darkened the
depths of these cracks while the part exposed to the sun appeared
washed several shades lighter. His short stiff beard extended over all
the furrows and crests of his skin. Furthermore, he had hair in his
ears, hair in the nasal passages, coarse and vibrating growths, ready
to tremble in moments of wrath or admiration.... But this ugliness
disappeared under the light of his little eyes with pupils between
green and olive color,--mild eyes with a canine expression of
resignation, when the captain made fun of his beliefs.
Toni was a "man of ideas." Ferragut only knew of his having four or
five, but they were hard, crystallized, tenacious, like the mollusks
that stick to the rocks and eventually become a part of the stony
excrescence. He had acquired them in twenty-five years of Mediterranean
coast service by reading all the periodicals of lyric radicalism that
were thrust upon him on entering the harbors. Furthermore, at the end
of every journey was Marseilles; and in one of its little side alleys
was a red room adorned with symbolic columns where sailors of all races
and tongues met together, fraternally understanding each other by means
of mysterious signs and ritual words.
Whenever Toni entered a South American port after a long absence, he
particularly admired the rapid progress of the new villages,--enormous
wharves constructed within the year, interminable streets that were not
in existence on his former voyage, shady and elegant parks, replacing
old, dried-up lakes.
"That's only natural," he would affirm roundly. "With good reason they
Upon entering the Spanish ports, the slightest deviation in the
docking, a discussion with the official employees, the lack of space
for a good anchorage would make him smile with bitterness. "Unfortunate
country!... Everything here is the work of the altar and the throne!"
In the Thames, and before the docks of Hamburg, Captain Ferragut would
chaff his subordinate.
"There's no republic here, Toni!... But, nevertheless this is rather
But Toni never gave in. He would contract his hairy visage, making a
mental effort to formulate his vague ideas, clothing them with words.
In the very background of these grandeurs existed the confirmation of
the idea he was so vainly trying to express. Finally he admitted
himself checkmated, but not convinced.
"I don't know how to explain it; I haven't the words for it ... but ...
it's the _people_ who are doing all this."
Upon receiving in Teneriffe the news of war, he summed up all his
doctrines with the terseness of a victor.
"In Europe there are too many kings.... If all the nations could be
republics!... This calamity just had to come!"
And this time Ferragut did not venture to ridicule the
single-mindedness of his second.
All the people of the _Mare Nostrum_ showed great enthusiasm over the
new business aspect of things. The seamen who in former voyages were
taciturn, as though foreseeing the ruin or exhaustion of their captain,
were now working as eagerly as though they were going to participate in
In the forward mess room many of them set themselves to work on
commercial calculations. The first trip of the war would be equal to
ten of their former ones; the second, perhaps, might bring in the
profit of twenty. And recalling their former bad business ventures,
they rejoiced for Ferragut, with the same disinterestedness as the
first officer. The engineers were no longer called to the captain's
cabin in order to contrive new economies in fuel. They had to take
advantage of the time and opportunity; and the _Mare Nostrum_ was now
going at full steam, making fourteen knots an hour, like a passenger
vessel, stopping only when its course was blocked at the entrance of
the Mediterranean by an English destroyer, sending out an officer to
make sure that they were not carrying on board enemy passengers.
Abundance reigned equally between bridge and forecastle where were the
sailors' quarters and the galley,--the space respected by every one on
the boat as the incontestable realm of Uncle Caragol.
This old man, nicknamed "Caracol" (snail), another old friend of
Ferragut's, was the ship's cook, and, although he did not dare to talk
as familiarly to the captain as in former times, the tone of his voice
made it understood that mentally he was continuing to use the old,
affectionate form. He had known Ulysses when he used to run away from
the classrooms to row in the harbor and, on account of the bad state of
his eyes, he had finally retired from the navigation of coast vessels,
descending to be a simple bargeman. His gravity and corpulence had
something almost priestly in character. He was the obese type of
Mediterranean with a little head, voluminous neck and triple chin,
seated on the stern of his fishing skiff like a Roman patrician on the
throne of his trireme.
His culinary talent suffered eclipse whenever rice did not figure as
the fundamental basis of his compositions. All that this food could
give of itself, he knew perfectly. In the tropical ports, the crews
surfeited with bananas, pineapples, and alligator-pears, would greet
with enthusiasm the apparition of a great frying pan of rice with cod
and potatoes, or a casserole of rice from the oven with its golden
crust perforated by the ruddy faces of garbanzos and points of black
sausage. At other times, under the leaden-colored sky of the northern
seas, the cook made them recall their distant native land by giving
them the monastic rice dish with beet roots, or buttery rice with
turnips and beans.
On Sundays and the fiestas of the Valencian saints who for Uncle
Caragol were the first in heaven,--_San Vicente Martir, San Vicente
Ferrer, La Virgin de los Desamparados_ and the _Cristo del Grao_--would
appear the smoking _paella_, a vast, circular dish of rice upon whose
surface of white, swollen grains were lying bits of various fowls. The
cook loved to surprise his following by distributing rotund, raw
onions, with the whiteness of marble and an acrid surprise that brought
tears to the eyes. They were a princely gift maintained in secret. One
had only to break them with one blow and their sticky juices would gush
forth and lose themselves in the palate like crisp mouthfuls of a sweet
and spicy bread, alternating with knifefuls of rice. The boat was at
times near Brazil in sight of Fernando de Norona,--yet even while
viewing the conical huts of the negroes installed on an island under an
equatorial sun, the crews could almost believe--thanks to Uncle
Caragol's magic--that they were eating in a cabin of the farmland of
Valencia, as they passed from hand to hand the long-spouted jug filled
with strong wine from Liria.
When they anchored in ports where fish was abundant, he achieved the
great work of cooking a rice _abanda_. The cabin boys would bring to
the captain's table the pot in which was boiled the rich sea food mixed
with lobsters, mussels, and every kind of shell-fish available, but the
_chef_ invariably reserved for himself the honor of offering the
accompanying great platter with its pyramid, of rice, every grain
golden and distinct.
Boiled apart (_abanda_) each grain was full of the succulent broth of
the stew-pot. It was a rice dish that contained within it the
concentration of all the sustenance of the sea. As though he were
performing a liturgical ceremony, the _chef_ would go around delivering
half a lemon to each one of those seated at the table. The rice should
only be eaten after moistening it with this perfumed dew which called
to mind the image of an oriental garden. Only the unfortunate beings
who lived inland were ignorant of this exquisite confection, calling
any mess of rice a Valencian rice dish.
Ulysses would humor the cook's notions, carrying the first spoonful to
his mouth with a questioning glance.... Then he would smile, giving
himself up to gastric intoxication. "Magnificent, Uncle Caragol!" His
good humor made him affirm that only the gods should be nourished with
rice _abanda_ in their abodes on Mount Olympus. He had read that in
books. And Caragol, divining great praise in all this, would gravely
reply, "That is so, my captain." Toni and the other officers by this
time would be chewing away with heads down, only interrupting their
feast to regret that the old Ganymede should have skimped them when
measuring the ambrosia.
In his estimation, oil was as precious as rice. In the time of their
money-losing navigation, when the captain was making special efforts at
economy, Caragol used to keep an especially sharp eye on the great oil
bottles in his galley, for he suspected that the cabin boys and the
young seamen appropriated it to dress their hair when they wanted to
play the dandy, using the oil as a pomade. Every head that put itself
within reach of his disturbed glance he grasped between his arms,
raising it to his nose. The slightest perfume of olive oil would arouse
his wrath. "Ah, you thief!"... And down would fall his enormous hand,
soft and heavy as a fencing gauntlet.
Ulysses believed him quite capable of climbing the bridge, and
declaring that navigation could not go on because of his having
exhausted the leathern bottles of amethyst-colored liquid proceeding
from the Sierra de Espadan.
In the ports, his short-sighted eyes recognized immediately the
nationality of the boats anchored on both sides of the _Mare Nostrum_.
His nose would sniff the air sadly. "Nothing!..." They were unsavory
barks, barks from the North that prepared their dinner with lard or
butter,--Protestant barks, perhaps.
Sometimes he would sneak along the gunwale, following an intoxicating
trail until he planted himself in front of the galley of the
neighboring boat, breathing in its rich perfume. "Hello, brothers!"
Impossible to fool him, they were probably Spaniards and, if not, they
were from Genoa or Naples,--in short, were compatriots accustomed to
live and eat in all latitudes just as though they were in their own
little inland sea. Soon they would begin a speech in the Mediterranean
idiom, a mixture of Spanish, Provencal and Italian, invented by the
hybrid peoples of the African coast from Egypt to Morocco. Sometimes
they would send each other presents, like those that are exchanged
between tribes,--fruits from distant countries. At other times,
suddenly inimical, without knowing why, they would shake their fists
over the railing, yelling insults at each other in which, between every
two or three words, would appear the names of the Virgin and her holy
This was the signal for Uncle Caragol, religious soul, to return in
haughty silence to his galley. Toni, the mate, used to make fun of his
devout enthusiasm. On the other hand, the foremast hands, materialistic
and gluttonous, used to listen to him with deference, because he was
the one who doled out the wine and the choicest tid-bits. The old man
used to speak to them of the _Cristo del Grao_, whose pictures occupied
the most prominent site in the kitchen, and they would all listen as to
a new tale, to the story of the arrival by sea of the sacred image,
mounted upon a ladder in a boat that had dissolved in smoke after
discharging its miraculous cargo.
This had been when the _Grao_ was no more than a group of huts far from
the walls of Valencia and threatened by the raids of the Moorish
pirates. For many years Caragol, barefooted, had carried this sacred
ladder on his shoulder on the day of the fiesta. Now other men of the
sea were enjoying such honor and he, old and half-blind, would be
waiting among the public for the procession to pass in order that he
might throw himself upon the enormous relic, touching his clothes to
All his outer garments were sanctified by this contact. In reality they
weren't very many, since he usually strolled about the boat very
lightly clad, with the immodesty of a man who sees poorly and considers
himself above human preoccupations.
A shirt with the tail always floating, and a pair of pantaloons of
dirty cotton or yellow flannel, according to the season, constituted
his entire outfit. The bosom of the shirt was open on all occasions,
leaving visible a thatch of white hair. The pantaloons were fastened
together with a single button. A palm leaf hat always covered his head
even when he was working among his cooking pots.
The _Mare Nostrum_ could not be shipwrecked nor suffer any harm while
it carried him aboard. In the days of tempest, when waves were sweeping
the deck from prow to poop, and the sailors were treading warily,
fearing that a heavy sea might carry them overboard, Caragol would
stick his head out through the door of the galley, scorning a danger
which he could not see.
The great water-spouts would pass over him, even putting out his fires,
but only increasing his faith. "Courage, boys! Courage, lads!" The
_Cristo del Grao_ had special charge of them and nothing bad could
happen to the ship... Some of the seamen were silent, while others said
this and that about the image without arousing the indignation of the
old devotee. God, who sends dangers to the men of the sea, knows that
their bad words lack malice.
His religiosity extended to the very deeps. He did not wish to say
anything about the ocean fish, for they inspired him with the same
indifference as those cold and unperfumed boats that were ignorant of
olive oil, and all that was cooked with "pomade." They must be
He was better acquainted with the fish of the Mediterranean and even
came to believe that they must be good Catholics, since in their own
way they proclaimed the glory of God. Standing near the taffrail on
torrid evenings in the tropics, he would recount, in honor of the
inhabitants of his distant sea, the portentous miracle which had taken
place in the glen of Alboraya.
A priest was one day fording on horseback the mouth of a river in order
to carry the eucharist to a dying person, when his beast stumbled and
the ciborium, falling open, the Hosts fell out and were carried off by
the current. From that time on, mysterious lights glowed every night on
the water, and at sunrise a swarm of little fishes would come to range
themselves opposite the glen, their heads emerging from the water, in
order to show the Host which each one of them was carrying in his
mouth. In vain the fishermen wished to take them away from them. They
fled to the inland sea with their treasures. Only when the clergy, with
cross erect and with the same priest, fell on their knees in the glen
did they decide to approach; and one after the other deposited his Host
in the ciborium, retiring then from wave to wave, gracefully waggling
their little tails.
In spite of the vague hope for a jug of choice wine that was animating
most of his hearers, a murmur of incredulity always arose at the end of
this tale. The devout Caragol then became as wrathful and foul-mouthed
as a prophet of old when he considered his faith in danger. "Who was
that son of a flea?... Who _was_ that son of a flea daring to doubt
what I myself have seen?..." And what he had seen was the fiesta of the
_Peixet_ that was celebrated every year, simply listening to most
learned men discoursing about the miracle in a commemorative chapel
built on the banks of the glen.
This prodigy of the little fishes was almost always followed with what
he called the miracle of the _Peixot_, endeavoring with the weight of
such a marvelous fish tale to crush the doubts of the impious.
The galley of Alphonso V of Aragon (the only sailor king of Spain),
upon coming out of the Gulf of Naples, once struck a hidden rock near
the island of Capri which took away a side of the ship without making
it leak; and the vessel continued on with all sails spread, carrying
the king, the ladies of his court, and the retinue of mail-clad barons.
Twenty days afterward they arrived at Valencia safe and sound like all
sailors who in moments of danger ask aid of the _Virgen del Puig_. Upon
inspecting the hull of the galley, the master calkers beheld a
monstrous fish detach itself from its bottom with the tranquility of an
upright person who has fulfilled his duty. It was a dolphin sent by the
most holy Senora in order that his side might stop up the open breach.
And thus, like a plug, it had sailed from Naples to Valencia without
allowing a drop of water to pass in.
The _chef_ would not admit any criticisms nor protests. This miracle
was undeniable. He had seen it with his own eyes, and they were good.
He had seen it in an ancient picture in the monastery of Puig,
everything appearing on the tablet with the realism of truth,--the
galley, the king, the _peixot_ and the Virgin above giving the order.
At this juncture the breeze would flap the narrator's shirt tail,
disclosing his abdomen divided into hemispheres by the tyranny of its
only pantaloon button.
"Uncle Caragol, look out!" warned a teasing voice.
The holy man would smile with the seraphic calm of one who sees beyond
the pomps and vanities of existence, and would begin the relation of a
Ferragut used to attribute his cook's periods of exaltation to the
lightness of his clothing in all weathers. Within him was burning a
fire incessantly renewed. On foggy days he would climb to the bridge
with some glasses of a smoking drink that he used to call _calentets_.
Nothing better for men that had to pass long hours in the inclement
weather in motionless vigilance! It was coffee mixed with rum, but in
unequal proportions, having more alcohol than black liquid. Toni would
drink rapidly all the glasses offered. The captain would refuse them,
asking for clear coffee.
His sobriety was that of the ancient sailor,--the sobriety of Father
Ulysses who used to mix wine with water in all his libations. The
divinities of the old sea did not love alcoholic drinks. The white
_Amphitrite_ and the Nereids only accepted on their altars the fruits
of the earth, sacrifices of doves, libations of milk. Perhaps because
of this the seafaring men of the Mediterranean, following an hereditary
tendency, looked upon intoxication as the vilest of degradations. Even
those who were not temperate avoided getting frankly drunk like the
sailors of other seas, dissimulating the strength of their alcoholic
beverage with coffee and sugar.
Caragol was the understudy charged with drinking all which the captain
refused, together with certain others which he dedicated to himself in
the mystery of the galley. On warm days he manufactured _refresquets_,
and these refreshments were enormous glasses, half of water and half of
rum upon a great bed of sugar,--a mixture that made one pass like a
lightning flash, without any gradations, from vulgar serenity to most
The captain would scold him upon seeing his inflamed and reddened eyes.
He was going to make himself blind.... But the guilty one was not moved
by this threat. He had to celebrate the prosperity of the vessel in his
own way. And of this prosperity the most interesting thing for him was
his ability to use oil and brandy lavishly without any fear of
recriminations when the accounts were settled. _Cristo del Grao_!...
would that the war would last forever!...
The _Mare Nostrum's_ third voyage from South America to Europe came
suddenly to an end in Naples, where they were unloading wheat and
hides. A collision at the entrance of the port, with an English
hospital ship that was going to the Dardanelles, injured her stern,
carrying away a part of the screw.
Toni roared with impatience upon learning that they would have to
remain nearly a month in enforced idleness. Italy had not yet
intervened in the war, but her defensive precautions were monopolizing
all naval industries. It was not possible to make the repairs sooner,
although Ferragut well knew what this loss of time would represent in
his business. Valuable freight was waiting for him in Marseilles and
Barcelona, but, wishing to tranquillize himself and to pacify his mate,
he would say repeatedly:
"England will indemnify us.... The English are just."
And in order to soothe his impatience he went ashore.
Compared with other celebrated Italian cities, Naples did not appear to
him of much importance. Its true beauty was its immense gulf between
hills of orange trees and pines, with a second frame of mountains one
of which outlined upon the azure heavens its eternal crest of volcanic
The town did not abound in famous edifices. The monarchs of Naples had
generally been foreigners who had resided far away and had governed
through their delegates. The best streets, the palaces, the monumental
fountain, had come from the Spanish viceroys. A sovereign of mixed
origin, Charles the III, Castilian by birth and Neapolitan at heart,
had done the most for the city. His building enthusiasm had embellished
the ancient districts with works similar to those that he erected years
afterward, upon occupying the throne of Spain.
After admiring the Grecian statuary in the museum, and the excavated
objects that revealed the intimate life of the ancients, Ulysses
threaded the tortuous and often gloomy arteries of the popular
There were streets clinging to the slopes forming landings flanked with
narrow and very high houses. Every vacant space had its balconies, and
from every railing to its opposite were extended lines spread with
clothes of different colors, hung out to dry. Neapolitan fertility made
these little alleys seethe with people. Around the open-air kitchens
there crowded patrons, eating, while standing, their boiled macaroni or
bits of meat.
The hucksters were hawking their goods with melodious, song-like cries,
and cords to which little baskets were fastened were lowered down to
them from balconies. The bargaining and purchases reached from the
depth of the street gutters to the top of the seventh floor, but the
flocks of goats climbed the winding steps with their customary agility
in order to be milked at the various stair landings.
The wharves of the Marinela attracted the captain because of the local
color of this Mediterranean port. Italian unity had torn down and
reconstructed much of it, but there still remained standing various
rows of little low-roofed houses with white or pink facades, green
doors, and lower floors further forward than the upper ones, serving as
props for galleries with wooden balustrades. Everything there that was
not of brick was of clumsy carpentry resembling the work of ship
calkers. Iron did not exist in these terrestrial constructions
suggestive of the sailboat whose rooms were as dark as staterooms.
Through the windows could be seen great conch-shells upon the chests of
drawers, harsh and childish oil paintings representing frigates, and
multi-colored shells from distant seas.
These dwellings repeated themselves in all the ports of the
Mediterranean just as though they were the work of the same hand. As a
child, Ferragut had seen them in the _Grao_ of Valencia and continually
ran across them in Barcelona, in the suburbs of Marseilles, in old
Nice, in the ports of the western islands, and in the sections of the
African coast occupied by Maltese and Sicilians.
Over the town, lined up along the Marinela, the churches of Naples
reared their domes and towers with glazed roofs, green and yellow,
which appeared more like pinnacles of Oriental baths than the roofs of
The barefooted _lazzarone_ with his red cap no longer existed, but the
crowd,--clad like the workmen of all ports--still gathered around the
daubed poster that represented a crime, a miracle or a prodigious
specific, listening in silence to the harangue of the narrator or
charlatan. The old popular comedians were declaiming with heroic
gesticulations the epic octavos of Tasso, and harps and violins were
sounding accompaniments to the latest melody that Naples had made
fashionable throughout the entire world. The stands of the oyster-men
constantly sent forth an organic perfume from the spent wave, and all
around them empty shells scattered their disks of pearly lime over the
Near to the ancient Captaincy of the port, the palace of Charles
III,--blue and white, with an image of the immaculate conception,--were
assembled the unloading trucks, whose teams still preserved their
ancient hybrid originality. In some instances the shafts were occupied
by a white ox, sleek with enormous and widely branching horns, an
animal similar to those that used to figure in the religious ceremonies
of the ancients. At his right would be hooked a horse, at his left, a
great raw-boned mule, and this triple and discordant team appeared in
all the carts, standing immovable before the ships the length of the
docks, or dragging their heavy wheels up the slopes leading to the
In a few days the captain grew tired of Naples and its bustle. In the
cafes of the Street of Toledo and the Gallery of Humbert I, he had to
defend himself from some noisy youths with low-cut vests, butterfly
neckties and little felt hats perched upon their manes, who, in low
voices, proposed to him unheard-of spectacles organized for the
diversion of foreigners.
He had also seen enough of the paintings and domestic objects excavated
from the ancient cities. The lewdness of the secret cabinets finally
irritated him. It appeared to him the reverse of recreation to
contemplate so many childish fantasies of sculpture and painting having
the antique symbol of masculinity as its principal motif.
One morning he boarded a train and, after skirting the smoking mountain
of Vesuvius, passing between rose-colored villages surrounded with
vineyards, he stopped at the station of Pompeii.
From the funereal solitudes of hotels and restaurants, the guides came
forth like a suddenly awakened swarm of wasps, lamenting that the war
had cut off the tourist trade. Perhaps he would be the only one who
would come that day. "_Signor_, at your service, at any price
whatever!..." But the sailor continued on alone. Always, in recalling
Pompeii, he had wished to see it again alone, absolutely alone, so as
to get a more direct impression of the ancient life.
His first view of it had been seventeen years ago when, as a mate of a
Catalan sailing vessel anchored in the port of Naples, he had taken
advantage of the cheapness of Sunday rates and had seen everything as
one of a crowd that was pushing and treading on everybody's feet so as
to listen to the nearest guide.
At the head of the expedition had been a priest, young and elegant, a
Roman _Monsignor_, clad in silk, and with him two showy foreign women,
who were always climbing up in the highest places, raising their skirts
rather high for fear of the star lizards that were writhing in and out
of the ruins. Ferragut, in humble admiration, always remained below,
glimpsing the country from behind their legs. "Ay! Twenty-two
years!..." Afterwards when he heard Pompeii spoken of, it always evoked
in his memory several strata of images. "Very beautiful! Very
interesting!" And in his mind's eye he saw again the palaces and
temples, but as a secondary consideration, like a shrouded background,
while in the forefront were four magnificent legs standing forth,--a
human colonnade of slender shafts swathed in transparent black silk.
The solitude so long desired for his second visit was now aggressively
in evidence. In this deserted, dead city there were to-day no other
sounds than the whirring of insect wings over the plants beginning to
clothe themselves with springtime verdure, and the invisible scampering
of reptiles under the layers of ivy.
At the gate of Herculaneum, the guardian of the little museum left
Ferragut to examine in peace the excavations of the various corpses,
petrified Pompeiians of plaster still in the attitudes of terror in
which death had surprised them. He did not abandon his post in order to
trouble the captain with his explanations; he scarcely raised his eyes
from the newspaper that he had before him. The news from Rome,--the
intrigues of the German diplomats, the possibility that Italy might
enter the war,--were absorbing his entire attention.
Afterwards on the solitary streets the sailor found everywhere the same
preoccupation. His footsteps resounded in the sunlight as though
treading the depths of the hollow tombs. The moment he stopped, silence
again enveloped him,--"A silence of two thousand years," thought
Ferragut to himself, and in the midst of this primeval silence sounded
far-away voices in the violence of a sharp discussion. They were the
guardians and the employees of the excavations who, lacking work, were
gesticulating and insulting each other in these strongholds twenty
centuries old so profoundly isolated from patriotic enthusiasm or fear
of the horrors of war.
Ferragut, map in hand, passed among these groups without annoyance from
insistent guides. For two hours he fancied himself an inhabitant of
ancient Pompeii who had remained alone in the city on a holiday devoted
to the rural divinities. His glance could reach to the very end of the
straight streets without encountering persons or things recalling
Pompeii appeared to him smaller than ever in this solitude,--an
intersection of narrow roads with high sidewalks paved with polygonal
blocks of blue lava. In its interstices Spring was forming green grass
plots dotted with flowers. Carriages,--of whose owners not even the
dust was left,--had with their deep wheels opened up ridges in the
pavement more than a thousand years ago. In every crossway was a public
fountain with a grotesque mask which had spouted water through its
Certain red letters on the walls were announcements of elections to be
held in the beginning of that era,--candidates for aedile or duumvir
who were recommended to the Pompeiian voters. Some doors showed above,
the _phallus_ for conjuring the evil eyes; others, a pair of serpents
intertwined, emblem of family life. In the corners of the alleyways, a
Latin verse engraved on the walls asked the passerby to observe the
laws of sanitation, and there still could be seen on the stuccoed walls
caricatures and scribbling, handiwork of the little street gamins of
The houses were lightly constructed upon floors cracked by minor
earthquakes before the arrival of the final catastrophe. The lower
floors were of bricks or concrete and the others, of wood, had been
devoured by the volcanic fire, only the stairways remaining.
In this gracious city of amiable and easy-going life, more Greek than
Roman, all the lower floors of the plebeian houses had been occupied by
petty traders. They were shops with doors the same size as the
establishment, four-sided caves like the Arabian _zocos_ whose
furthermost corners were visible to the buyer stopping in the street.
Many still had their stone counters and their large earthen jars for
the sale of wine and oil. The private dwellings had no facades, and
their outer walls were smooth and unapproachable, but with an interior
court providing the surrounding chambers with light as in the palaces
of the Orient. The doors were merely half-doors of escape, parts of
larger ones. All life was concentrated around the interior, the central
patio, rich and magnificent, adorned with fish ponds, statues and
Marble was rare. The columns constructed of bricks were covered with a
stucco that offered a fine surface for painting. Pompeii had been a
polychrome city. All the columns, red or yellow, had capitals of divers
colors. The center of the walls was generally occupied with a little
picture, usually erotic, painted on black varnished walls varied with
red and amber hues. On the friezes were processions of cupids and
tritons, between rustic and maritime emblems.
Tired of his excursion through the dead city, Ferragut seated himself
on a stone bench among the ruins of the temple, and looked over the map
spread out on his knees, enjoying the titles with which the most
interesting constructions had been designated because of a mosaic or a
painting,--Villa of Diomedes, the House of Meleager, of the wounded
Adonis, of the Labryinth, of the Faun, of the Black Wall. The names of
the streets were not less interesting: The Road of the Hot Baths, the
Road of the Tombs, the Road of Abundance, the Road of the Theaters.
The sound of footsteps made the sailor raise his head. Two ladies were
passing, preceded by a guide. One was tall, with a firm tread. They
were wearing face-veils and still another larger veil crossing behind
and coming over the arms like a shawl. Ferragut surmised a great
difference in the ages of the two. The stout one was moving along with
an assumed gravity. Her step was quick, but with a certain authority
she planted on the ground her large feet, loosely shod and with low
heels. The younger one, taller and more slender, tripping onwards with
little steps like a bird that only knows how to fly, was teetering
along on high heels.
The two looked uneasily at this man appearing so unexpectedly among the
ruins. They had the preoccupied and timorous air of those going to a
forbidden place or meditating a bad action. Their first movement was an
impulse to go back, but the guide continued on his way so imperturbably
that they followed on.
Ferragut smiled. He knew where they were going. The little cross street
of the _Lupanares_ was near. The guard would open a door, remaining on
watch with dramatic anxiety as though he were endangering his job by
this favor in exchange for a tip. And the two ladies were about to see
some tarnished, clumsy paintings showing nothing new or original in the
world,--nude, yellowish figures, just alike at first glance with no
other novelty than an exaggerated emphasis on sex distinction.
Half an hour afterwards Ulysses abandoned his bench, for his eyes had
tired of the severe monotony of the ruins. In the street of the Hot
Baths (_Thermae_), he again visited the house of the tragic poet. Then
he admired that of Pansa, the largest and most luxurious in the city.
This Pansa had undoubtedly been the most pretentious citizen of
Pompeii. His dwelling occupied an entire block. The _xystus_, or
garden, adjoining the house had been laid out like a Grecian landscape
with cypresses and laurels between squares of roses and violets.
Following along the exterior wall of the garden, Ferragut again met the
two ladies. They were looking at the flowers across the bars of the
door. The younger one was expressing in English her admiration for some
roses that were flinging their royal color around the pedestal of an
Ulysses felt an irresistible desire to show off in a gallant and
intrepid fashion. He wished to pay the two foreign ladies some
theatrical homage. He felt that necessity of attracting attention in
some gay and dashing way that characterizes Spaniards far from home.
With the agility of a mast-climber, he leaped the garden wall in one
bound. The two ladies gave a cry of surprise, as though they had
witnessed some impossible maneuver. This audacity appeared to upset the
ideas of the older one, accustomed to life in disciplined towns that
rigidly respect every established prohibition. Her first movement was
of flight, so as not to be mixed up in the escapade of this stranger.
But after a few steps she paused. The younger one was smiling, looking
at the wall, and as the captain reappeared upon it she almost clapped
with enthusiasm as though applauding a dangerous acrobatic feat.
Believing them to be English, the sailor spoke in that language when
presenting to them the two roses that he carried in his hand. They were
merely flowers, like all others, grown in a land like other lands, but
the frame of the thousand-year-old wall, the propinquity of the alcoves
and drinking shops of a house built by Pansa in the time of the first
Caesars, gave them the interest of roses two thousand years old,
The largest and most luxuriant he gave to the young woman, and she
accepted it smilingly as her natural right. Her companion as soon as
she acknowledged the gift, appeared impatient to get away from the
stranger. "Thanks!... Thanks!" And she pushed along the other one, who
had not yet finished smiling,--the two going hurriedly away. A corner
adorned with a fountain soon hid their steps.
When Ulysses, after a light lunch in the restaurant of Diomedes, came
running to the station, the train was just about to start. He was
planning to see Salerno, celebrated in the Middle Ages for its
physicians and navigators, and then the ruined temples of Paestum. As
he climbed into the nearest coach, he fancied that he spied the veils
of the two ladies vanishing behind a little door that was just closing.
In the station of Salerno he again caught sight of them in a distant
hack disappearing in a neighboring street, and during the afternoon he
frequently ran across them as travelers will in a small city. They met
one another in the harbor, so fatally threatened with bars of moving
sand; they saw each other in the gardens bordering the sea, near the
monument of Carlo Pisacana, the romantic duke of San Juan, a precursor
of Garibaldi, who died in extreme youth for the liberty of Italy.
The young woman smiled whenever she met him. Her companion passed on
with a casual glance, trying to ignore his presence.
At night they saw more of each other, as they were stopping at the same
hotel, a lodging house like all those in the small ports with excellent
meals and dirty rooms. They had adjoining tables, and after a coldly
acknowledged greeting, Ferragut had a good look at the two ladies who
were speaking very little and in a low tone, fearing to be overheard by
Upon looking at the older one without her veils, he found his original
impression confirmed. In other times, perhaps, she might have destroyed
the peace of male admirers, but she could now continue her hostile and
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