Part 1 out of 5
Produced by Eric Eldred, Cam,
and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team
BY PIO BAROJA
TRANSLATED FROM THE SPANISH By ISAAC GOLDBERG
I Preamble--Somewhat Immoral Notions of a Boarding-House Keeper--A
Balcony is Heard Closing--A Cricket Chirps
II Dona Casiana's House--A Morning Ceremony--Conspiracy--Wherein is
Discussed The Nutritive Value of Bones--Petra and Her Family--Manuel;
his Arrival in Madrid
III First Impressions of Madrid--The Boarders--Idyll--Sweet and
IV Oh, Love, Love!--What's Don Telmo Doing?--Who is Don
Telmo?--Wherein the Student and Don Telmo Assume Certain Novelesque
I "The Regeneration of Footgear" and "The Lion of the Bootmaker's
Art"--The First Sunday--An Escapade--_El Bizco_ and his Gang
II The "Big Yard" or Uncle Rilo's House--Local Enmities
III Roberto Hastings at the Shoemaker's--The Procession of
Beggars--Court of Miracles
IV Life in the Cobbler's Shop--Manuel's Friends
V La Blasa's Tavern
VI Roberto in Quest of a Woman--_El Tabuenca_ and his
Inventions--Don Alonso or the Snake-Man
VII The _Kermesse_ on Pasion Street--"The Dude"--A Cafe Chantant
VIII Leandro's Irresolution--In La Blasa's Tavern--The Man with the
Three Cards--The Duel with _Valencia_
IX An Unlikely Tale--Manuel's Sisters--Life's Baffling Problems
I Uncle Patas' Domestic Drama--The Bakery--Karl the Baker--The Society
of the Three
II One of the Many Disagreeable Ways of Dying in Madrid--The
Orphan--_El Cojo_ and his Cave--Night in the Observatory
III Meeting with Roberto--Roberto Narrates the Origin of a Fantastic
IV Dolores the Scandalous--_Pastiri's_ Tricks--Tender Savagery--A
Modest Out-of-the-way Robbery
V Gutter Vestals--The Troglodites
VI Senor Custodio and his Establishment--The Free Life
VII Senor Custodio's Ideas--_La Justa, el Carnicerin_ and _El
VIII The Square--A Wedding in La Bombilla--The Asphalt Caldrons
Preamble--Somewhat Immoral Notions of a Boarding-House Keeper--A
Balcony Is Heard Closing--A Cricket Chirps.
The clock in the corridor had just struck twelve, in a leisurely,
rhythmic, decorous manner. It was the habit of that tall old
narrow-cased clock to accelerate or retard, after its own sweet taste
and whim, the uniform and monotonous series of hours that encircle our
life until it wraps it and leaves it, like an infant in its crib, in
the obscure bosom of time.
Soon after this friendly indication of the old clock, uttered in a
solemn, peaceful voice becoming an aged person, the hour of eleven
rang out in a shrill, grotesque fashion, with juvenile impertinence,
from a petulant little clock of the vicinity, and a few minutes later,
to add to the confusion and the chronometric disorder, the bell of a
neighbouring church gave a single long, sonorous stroke that quivered
for several seconds in the silent atmosphere.
Which of the three clocks was correct? Which of those three devices
for the mensuration of time was the most exact in its indications?
The author cannot say, and he regrets it. He, regrets it, because
Time, according to certain solemn philosophers, is the canvas
background against which we embroider the follies of our existence,
and truly it is little scientific not to be able to indicate at
precisely which moment the canvas of this book begins. But the author
does not know; all he can say is, that at that moment the steeds of
night had for an appreciable time been coursing across the heavens. It
was, then, the hour of mystery; the hour when wicked folk stalk
abroad; the hour in which the poet dreams of immortality, rhyming
_hijos_ with _prolijos_ and _amor_ with _dolor_; the hour in which the
night-walker slinks forth from her lair and the gambler enters his;
the hour of adventures that are sought and never found; the hour,
finally, of the chaste virgin's dreams and of the venerable old man's
rheumatism. And as this romantic hour glided on, the shouts and songs
and quarrels of the street subsided; the lights in the balconies were
extinguished; the shopkeepers and janitors drew in their chairs from
the gutter to surrender themselves to the arms of sleep.
In the chaste, pure dwelling of Dona Casiana the boarding-house
keeper, idyllic silence had reigned for some time. Only through the
balcony windows, which were wide open, came the distant rumbling of
carriages and the song of a neighbouring cricket who scratched with
disagreeable persistency upon the strident string of his instrument.
At the hour, whatever it was, that was marked by the twelve slow,
raucous snores of the corridor clock, there were in the house only an
old gentleman,--an impenitent early-riser; the proprietress, Dona
Casiana,--a landlady equally impenitent, to the misfortune of her
boarders, and the servant Petra.
At this moment the landlady was asleep, seated upon the rocking-chair
before the open balcony; Petra, in the kitchen, was likewise asleep,
with her head resting against the window-frame, while the old
early-rising gentleman amused himself by coughing in bed.
Petra had finished scouring and her drowsiness, the heat and fatigue
had doubtless overcome her. She could be made out dimly in the light
of the small lamp that hung by the hearth. She was a thin, scrawny
woman, flat-chested, with lean arms, big red hands and skin of greyish
hue. She slept seated upon a chair with her mouth open; her breathing
was short and laboured.
At the strokes of the corridor clock she suddenly awoke; she shut the
window, through which came a nauseating, stable-like odour from the
milk-dairy on the ground-floor; she folded the clothes and left with a
pile of dishes, depositing them upon the dining-room table; then she
laid away in a closet the table-ware, the tablecloth and the left-over
bread; she took down the lamp and entered the room in the balcony of
which the landlady sat sleeping.
"Senora, senora!" she called, several times.
"Eh? What is it?" murmured Dona Casiana drowsily.
"Perhaps you wish something?"
"No, nothing. Oh, yes! Tell the baker tomorrow that I'll pay him the
"Very well. Good-night."
The servant was leaving the room, when the balconies of the house
across the way lighted up. They opened wide and soon there came the
strains of a tender prelude from a guitar.
"Petra! Petra!" cried Dona Casiana. "Come here. Eh? Over in that
Isabel's house ... You can tell they have visitors."
The domestic went to the balcony and gazed indifferently at the house
"Now that's what pays," the landlady went on. "Not this nasty
At this juncture there appeared in one of the balconies of the other
house a woman wrapped in a flowing gown, with a red flower in her
hair. A young man in evening dress, with swallow-tail coat and white
vest, clasped her tightly about the waist.
"That's what pays," repeated the landlady several times.
This notion must have stirred her ill-humour, for she added in an
"Tomorrow I'll have some plain words with that priest and those
gadabout daughters of Dona Violante, and all the rest who are behind
in their payments. To think a woman should have to deal with such a
tribe! No! They'll laugh no more at me! ..."
Petra, without offering a reply, said good-night again and left the
room. Dona Casiana continued to grumble, then ensconced her rotund
person in the rocker and dozed off into a dream about an establishment
of the same type as that across the way; but a model establishment,
with luxuriously appointed salons, whither trooped in a long
procession all the scrofulous youths of the clubs and fraternities,
mystic and mundane, in such numbers that she was compelled to install
a ticket-office at the entrance.
While the landlady lulled her fancy in this sweet vision of a brothel
_de luxe_, Petra entered a dingy little room that was cluttered
with old furniture. She set the light upon a chair, and placed a
greasy box of matches on the top of the container; she read for a
moment out of a filthy, begrimed devotionary printed in large type;
she repeated several prayers with her eyes raised to the ceiling, then
began to undress. The night was stifling; in that hole the heat was
horrible. Petra got into bed, crossed herself, put out the lamp, which
smoked for a long time, stretched herself out and laid her head upon
the pillow. A worm in one of the pieces of furniture made the wood
crack at regular intervals.
Petra slept soundly for a couple of hours, then awoke stifling from
the heat. Somebody had just opened the door and footsteps were heard
in the entry.
"That's Dona Violante and her daughters," mumbled Petra. "It must be
The three women were probably returning from los Jardines, after
having supped in search of the pesetas necessary to existence. Luck
must have withheld its favour, for they were in bad humour and the two
young women were quarrelling, each blaming the other for having wasted
There were a number of venomous, ironic phrases, then the dispute
ceased and silence was restored. Petra, thus kept awake, sank into her
own thoughts; again footfalls were heard in the corridor, this time
light and rapid. Then came the rasping of the shutter-bolt of a
balcony that was being opened cautiously.
"One of them has got up," thought Petra. "What can the fuss be now?"
In a few minutes the voice of the landlady was heard shouting
imperiously from her room:
"Irene! ... Irene!"
"Come in from the balcony."
"And why do I got to come in?" replied a harsh voice in rough,
"Because you must ... That's why."
"Why, what am I doing in the balcony?"
"That's something you know better than I."
"Well, I don't know."
"Well, I do."
"I was taking the fresh air."
"I guess you're fresh enough."
"You mean you are, senora."
"Close the balcony. You imagine that this house is something else."
"I? What have I done?"
"I don't have to tell you. For that sort of thing there's the house
across the way, across the way."
"She means Isabel's," thought Petra.
The balcony was heard to shut suddenly; steps echoed in the entry,
followed by the slamming of a door. For a long time the landlady
continued her grumbling; soon came the murmuring of a conversation
carried on in low tones. Then nothing more was heard save the
persistent shrilling of the neighbouring cricket, who continued to
scrape away at his disagreeable instrument with the determination of a
beginner on the violin.
Dona Casiana's House--A Morning Ceremony--Conspiracy--Wherein Is
Discussed the Nutritive Value of Bones--Petra and her
Family--Manuel; his arrival in Madrid.
... And the cricket, now like an obstinate virtuoso, persisted in his
musical exercises, which were truly somewhat monotonous, until the sky
was brightened by the placid smile of dawn. At the very first rays of
the sun the performer relented, doubtless content with the perfection
of his artistic efforts, and a quail took up his solo, giving the
three regulation strokes. The watchman knocked with his pike at the
stores, one or two bakers passed with their bread, a shop was opened,
then another, then a vestibule; a servant threw some refuse out on the
sidewalk, a newsboy's calling was heard.
The author would be too bold if he tried to demonstrate the
mathematical necessity imposed upon Dona Casiana's house of being
situated on Mesonero Romanos Street rather than upon Olivo, for,
undoubtedly, with the same reason it might have been placed upon
Desengano, Tudescos or any other thoroughfare. But the duties of the
author, his obligation as an impartial and veracious chronicler compel
him to speak the truth, and the truth is that the house was on
Mesonero Romanos Street rather than on Olivo.
At this early hour not a sound could be heard inside; the janitor had
opened the vestibule-entrance and was regarding the street with a
The vestibule,--long, dingy, and ill-smelling,--was really a narrow
corridor, at one side of which was the janitor's lodge.
On passing this lodge, if you glanced inside, where it was encumbered
with furniture till no room was left, you could always make out a fat
woman, motionless, very swarthy, in whose arms reposed a pale weakling
of a child, long and thin, like a white earthworm. It seemed that
above the window, instead of "Janitor" the legend should have read:
"The Woman-Cannon and her Child," or some similar sign from the circus
If any question were addressed to this voluminous female she would
answer in a shrill voice accompanied by a rather disagreeable gesture
of disdain. Leaving the den of this woman-cannon to one side, you
would proceed; at the left of the entrance began the staircase, always
in darkness, with no air except what filtered in through a few high,
grated windows that opened upon a diminutive courtyard with filthy
walls punctured by round ventilators. For a broad, roomy nose endowed
with a keen pituitary membrane, it would have been a curious sport to
discover and investigate the provenience and the species of all the
vile odours comprising that fetid stench, which was an inalienable
characteristic of the establishment.
The author never succeeded in making the acquaintance of the persons
living upon the upper floors. He has a vague notion that there were
two or three landladies, a family who let out rooms to permanent
gentlemen boarders, but nothing else. Wherefore the author does not
climb those heights but pauses upon the first landing.
Here, at least by day, could be made out in the reigning darkness, a
tiny door; at night, on the other hand, by the light of a kerosene
lantern one could glimpse a tin door-plate painted red, upon which was
inscribed in black letters: "Casiana Fernandez."
At one side of the door hung a length of blackish rusted chain that
could be reached only by standing on tiptoe and stretching out one's
arm; but as the door was always ajar, the lodgers could come and go
without the need of knocking.
This led to the house. By day, one was plunged into utter obscurity;
the sole thing that indicated a change of place was the smell, not so
much because it was more agreeable than that of the staircase, as
because it was distinct; on the contrary, at night, in the vague light
shed by a cork night-taper afloat in the water and oil of a bowl that
was attached to the wall by a brass ring, there could be seen through
a certain dim nebulosity, the furniture, the pictures and the other
paraphernalia that occupied the reception hall.
Facing the entrance stood a broad, solid table on which reposed an
old-fashioned music-box consisting of several cylinders that bristled
with pins; close beside it, a plaster statue: a begrimed figure
lacking a nose, and difficult to distinguish as some god, half-god or
On the wall of the reception room and of the corridor hung some large,
indistinct oil paintings. A person of intelligence would perhaps have
considered them detestable, but the landlady, who imagined that a very
obscure painting must be very good, refreshed herself betimes with the
thought that mayhap these pictures, sold to an Englishman, would, one
day make her independent.
There were several canvases in which the artist had depicted
horrifying biblical scenes: massacres, devastation, revolting plagues;
but all this in such a manner, that, despite the painter's lavish
distribution of blood, wounds and severed heads, these canvases
instead of horrifying, produced an impression of merriment. One of
them represented the daughter of Herodias contemplating the head of
St. John the Baptist. Every figure expressed amiable joviality: the
monarch, with the indumentary of a card-pack king and in the posture
of a card-player, was smiling; his daughter, a florid-face dame, was
smiling; the familiars, encased in their huge helmets, were smiling,
and the very head of St. John the Baptist was smiling from its place
upon a repousse platter. Doubtless the artist of these paintings, if
he lacked the gift of design and colour, was endowed with that of
To the right and left of the house door ran the corridor, from whose
walls hung another exhibit of black canvases, most of them unframed,
in which could be made out absolutely nothing; only in one of them,
after very patient scrutiny, one might guess at a red cock pecking at
the leaves of a green cabbage.
Upon this corridor opened the bedrooms, in which, until very late in
the afternoon, dirty socks and torn slippers were usually seen strewn
upon the floor, while on the unmade beds lay collars and cuffs.
Almost all the boarders in that house got up late, except two
travelling salesmen, a bookkeeper and a priest, who arose early
through love of their occupations, and an old gentleman who did so
through habit or for reasons of hygiene.
The bookkeeper would be off, without breakfast, at eight in the
morning; the priest left _in albis_ to say mass; but the salesmen
had the audacious presumption to eat a bite in the house, and the
landlady resorted to a very simple procedure to send them off without
so much as a sip of water; these two agents began work between
half-past nine and ten; they retired very late, bidding their landlady
wake them at eight-thirty. She would see to it that they were not
aroused until ten. When they awoke and saw the time, they would jump
out of bed, hurriedly dress and dash off like a shot, cursing the
landlady. Then, when the feminine element of the house gave signs of
life, every nook would echo with cries, discordant voices,
conversations shouted from one bedchamber to another, and out of the
rooms, their hands armed with the night-service, would come the
landlady, one of Dona Violante's daughters, a tall, obese Biscayan
Lady, and another woman whom they called the Baroness.
The landlady invariably wore a corset-cover of yellow flannel, the
Baroness a wrapper mottled with stains from cosmetics and the Biscayan
lady a red waist through whose opening was regularly presented, for
the admiration of those who happened along the corridor, a huge white
udder streaked with coarse blue veins.
After this matutinal ceremony, and not infrequently during the same,
complaints, disputes, gossip and strife would arise, providing
tid-bits for the remaining hours.
On the day following the scrape between the landlady and Irene, when
the latter returned to her room after having fulfilled her mission, a
secret conclave was held by those who remained.
"Don't you know? Didn't you hear anything last night?" asked the
"No," replied the landlady and the Baroness. "What happened?"
"Irene smuggled a man into the house last night."
"I heard her talking to him myself."
"And he must have opened the street door! The dog!" muttered the
"No; the man came from this tenement."
"One of the students from upstairs," offered the Baroness.
"I'll tell a thing or two to the rascally fellow," replied Dona
"No. Take your time," answered the Biscayan. "We're going to give her
and her gallant a fright. If he comes tonight, while they're talking,
we'll tell the watchman to knock at the house door, and at the same
time we'll all come out of our rooms with lights, as if we were going
to the dining-room, and catch them."
While this plot was being hatched in the corridor, Petra was preparing
breakfast in the obscurity of the kitchen. There was very little to
prepare, for the meal invariably consisted of a fried egg, which never
by any accident was large, and a beefsteak, which, in memories
reverting to the remotest epoch, had not a single time by any
exception been soft.
At noon, the Biscayan, in tones of deep mystery, told Petra about the
conspiracy, but the maid-of-all-work was in no mood for jests that
day. She had just received a letter that filled her with worriment.
Her brother-in-law wrote her that Manuel, the eldest of Petra's
children, was being sent to Madrid. No lucid explanation of the reason
for this decision was given. The letter stated simply that back there
in the village the boy was only wasting his time, and that it would be
better for him to go to Madrid and learn a trade.
This letter had set Petra thinking. After wiping the dishes, she
washed herself in the kneeding-trough; she could not shake the fixed
idea that if her brother-in-law was sending Manuel to her it was
because the boy had been up to some mischief. She would soon find out,
for he was due to arrive that night.
Petra had four children, two boys and two girls; the girls were well
placed; the elder as a maid, with some very wealthy religious ladies,
the younger in a government official's home.
The boys gave her more bother; the younger not so much, since, as they
said, he continued to reveal a steady nature. The elder, however, was
rebellious and intractable.
"He doesn't take after me," thought Petra. "In fact, he's quite like
And this disquieted her. Her husband, Manuel Alcazar, had been an
energetic, powerful man, and, towards his last days, harsh-tempered
He was a locomotive machinist and earned good pay. Petra and he could
not get along together and the couple were always at blows.
Folks and friends alike blamed Alcazar the machinist for everything,
as if the systematic contrariness of Petra, who seemed to enjoy
nagging the man, were not enough to exasperate any one. Petra had
always been that way,--wilful, behind the mask of humility, and as
obstinate as a mule. As long as she could do as she pleased the rest
While the machinist was alive, the family's economic situation had
been relatively comfortable. Alcazar and Petra paid sixteen duros per
month for their rooms on Relojo street, and took in boarders: a mail
clerk and other railroad employes.
Their domestic existence might have been peaceful and pleasureful were
it not for the daily altercations between husband and wife. They had
both come to feel such a need for quarrelling that the most
insignificant cause would lead to scandalous scenes. It was enough
that he said white for her to cry black; this opposition infuriated
the machinist, who would throw the dishes about, belabour his wife,
and smash all the household furniture. Then Petra, satisfied that she
had sufficient cause for affliction, shut herself in her room to weep
What with his alcohol, his fits of temper, and his hard work, the
machinist went about half dazed; on one terribly hot day in August he
fell from the train on to the roadbed and was found dead without a
Petra, disregarding the advice of her boarders, insisted upon changing
residence, as she disliked that section of the city. This she did,
taking in new lodgers--unreliable, indigent folk who ran up large
bills or never paid at all--and in a short time she found herself
compelled to sell her furniture and abandon her new house.
Then she hired out her daughters as servants, sent her two boys off to
a little town in the province of Soria, where her brother-in-law was
the superintendent of a small railway station, and herself entered as
a domestic in Dona Casiana's lodging-house. Thus she descended from
mistress to servant, without complaint. It was enough that the idea
had occurred to her; therefore it was best.
She had been there for two years, saving her pay. Her ambition was to
have her sons study in a seminary and graduate as priests. And now
came the return of Manuel, the elder son, to upset her plans. What
could have happened?
She made various conjectures. In the meantime with her deformed hands
she removed the lodgers' dirty laundry. In through the courtyard
window wafted a confusion of songs and disputing voices, alternating
with the screech of the clothes-line pulleys.
In the middle of the afternoon Petra began preparation for dinner. The
mistress ordered every morning a huge quantity of bones for the
sustenance of her boarders. It is very possible that there was, in all
that heap of bones, a Christian one from time to time; certainly,
whether they came from carnivorous animals or from ruminants, there
was rarely on those tibiae, humeri, and femora a tiny scrap of meat.
The ossuary boiled away in the huge pot with beans that had been
tempered with bicarbonate, and with the broth was made the soup,
which, thanks to its quantity of fat, seemed like some turbid
concoction for cleaning glassware or polishing gilt.
After inspecting the state of the ossuary in the stew-pot, Petra made
the soup, and then set about extracting all the scrap meat from the
bones and covering them hypocritically with a tomato sauce. This was
the _piece de resistance_ in Dona Casiana's establishment.
Thanks to this hygienic regimen, none of the boarders fell ill with
obesity, gout or any of those other ailments due to excess of food and
so frequent in the rich.
After preparing the meal and serving it, Petra postponed the
dish-washing, and left the house to meet her son.
Night had not yet fallen. The sky was vaguely red, the air stifling,
heavy with a dense mist of dust and steam. Petra went up Carretas
Street, continued through Atocha, entered the Estacion del Mediodia
and sat down on a bench to wait for Manuel....
Meanwhile, the boy was approaching the city half asleep, half
asphyxiated, in a third-class compartment.
He had taken the train the night before at the railway station where
his uncle was superintendent. On reaching Almazan, he had to wait more
than an hour for a mixed train, so he sauntered through the deserted
streets to kill time.
To Manuel, Almazan seemed vast, infinitely sad; the town, glimpsed
through the gloom of a dimly starlit night, loomed like a great,
fanastic, dead city. The pale electric lights shone upon its narrow
streets and low houses; the spacious plaza with its arc lights was
deserted; the belfry of a church rose into the heavens.
Manuel strolled down towards the river. From the bridge the town
seemed more fantastic and mysterious than ever; upon a wall might be
made out the galleries of a palace, and several lofty, sombre towers
shot up from amidst the jumbled dwellings of the town; a strip of moon
gleamed close to the horizon, and the river, divided by a few islets
into arms, glittered as if it were mercury.
Manuel left Almazanhad to wait a few hours in Alcuneza for the next
train. He was weary, and as there were no benches in the station, he
stretched himself out upon the floor amidst bundles and skins of oil.
At dawn he boarded the other train, and despite the hardness of the
seat, managed to fall asleep.
Manuel had been two years with his relatives; he departed from their
home with more satisfaction than regret.
Life had held no pleasure for him during those two years.
The tiny station presided over by his uncle was near a poor hamlet
surrounded by arid, stony tracts upon which grew neither tree nor
bush. A Siberian temperature reigned in those parts, but the
inclemencies of Nature were nothing to bother a little boy, and gave
Manuel not the slightest concern.
The worst of it all was that neither his uncle nor his uncle's wife
showed any affection for him, rather indifference, and this
indifference prepared the boy to receive their few benefactions with
It was different with Manuel's brother, to whom the couple gradually
took a liking.
The two youngsters displayed traits almost absolutely opposite; the
elder, Manuel, was of a frivolous, slothful, indolent disposition, and
would neither study nor go to school. He was fond of romping about the
fields and engaging in bold, dangerous escapades. The characteristic
trait of Juan, the younger brother, was a morbid sentimentalism that
would overflow in tears upon the slightest provocation.
Manuel recalled that the school master and town organist, an old
fellow who was half dominie and taught the two brothers Latin, had
always prophesied that Juan would make his mark; Manuel he considered
as an adventure-seeking rover who would come to a bad end.
As Manuel dozed in the third-class compartment, a thousand
recollections thronged his imagination: the events of the night before
at his uncle's mingled in his mind with fleeting impressions of Madrid
already half forgotten. One by one the sensations of distinct epochs
intertwined themselves in his memory, without rhyme or reason and
among them, in the phantasmagoria of near and distant images that
rolled past his inner vision, there stood out clearly those sombre
towers glimpsed by night in Almazan by the light of the moon....
When one of his travelling companions announced that they had already
reached Madrid, Manuel was filled with genuine anxiety. A red dusk
flushed the sky, which was streaked with blood like some monster's
eye; the train gradually slackened speed; it glided through squalid
suburbs and past wretched houses; by this time, the electric lights
were gleaming pallidly above the high signal lanterns....
The train rolled on between long lines of coaches, the round-tables
trembled with an iron rumble, and the Estacion del Mediodia,
illuminated by arc lamps, came into view.
The travellers got out; Manuel descended with his little bundle of
clothes in his hand, looked in every direction for a glimpse of his
mother and could not make her out anywhere on the wide platform. For a
moment he was confused, then decided to follow the throng that was
hurrying with bundles and bird-cages toward a gate; he was asked for
his ticket, he stopped to go through his pockets, found it and issued
into the street between two rows of porters who were yelling the names
"Manuel! Where are you going?"
There was his mother. Petra had meant to be severe; but at the sight
of her son she forgot her severity and embraced him effusively.
"But--what happened?" Petra asked at once.
"Then--why have you come?"
"They asked me whether I wanted to stay there or go to Madrid, and I
said I'd rather go to Madrid."
"Nothing more," replied Manuel simply.
"And Juan? Was he studying?"
"Yes. Much more than I was. Is the house far off, Mother?"
"Yes, Why? Are you hungry?"
"I should say. I haven't had a bite all the way."
They left the Station at the Prado; then they walked up Alcala street.
A dusty mist quivered in the air; the street-lamp shone opaquely in
the turbid atmosphere.... As soon as they reached the house Petra made
supper for Manuel and prepared a bed for him upon the floor, beside
her own. The youth lay down, but so violent was the contrast between
the hamlet's silence and the racket of footsteps, conversations and
cries that resounded through the house, that, despite his weariness,
Manuel could not sleep.
He heard every lodger come in; it was past midnight when the
disturbance quieted down; suddenly a squabble burst out followed by a
crash of laughter which ended in a triply blasphemous imprecation and
a slap that woke the echoes.
"What can that be, Mother?" asked Manuel from his bed.
"That's Dona Violante's daughter whom they've caught with her
sweetheart," Petra answered, half from her sleep. Then it occurred to
her that it was imprudent to tell this to her boy, and she added,
"Shut up and go to sleep."
The music-box in the reception-room, set going by the hand of one of
the boarders, commenced to tinkle that sentimental air from _La
Mascotte_,--the duet between Pippo and Bettina:
_Will you forget me, gentle swain?_
Then all was silent.
First Impressions of Madrid--The Boarders--Idyll--Sweet and
Manuel's mother had a relation, her husband's cousin, who was a
cobbler. Petra had decided, some days previously, to give Manuel into
apprenticeship at the shoe-shop; but she still hoped the boy would be
convinced that it was better for him to study something than to learn
a trade, and this hope had deterred her from the resolution to send
the boy to her relative's house.
Persuading the landlady to permit Manuel to remain in the house cost
Petra no little labour, but at last she succeeded. It was agreed that
the boy would run errands and help to serve meals. Then when the
vacation season had passed, he would resume his studies.
On the day following his arrival the youngster assisted his mother at
All the borders, except the Baroness and her girl, were seated in the
dining-room, presided over by the landlady with her wrinkle-fretted,
parchment-hued face and its thirty-odd moles.
The dining-room, a long, narrow habitation with a window opening on
the courtyard, communicated with two narrow corridors that switched
off at right angles; facing the window stood a dark walnut sideboard
whose shelves were laden with porcelain, glassware and cups and
glasses in a row. The centre table was so large for such a small room
that when the boarders were seated it scarcely left space for passage
at the ends.
The yellow wall-paper, torn in many spots, displayed, at intervals,
grimy circles from the oil of the lodgers' hair; reclining in their
seats they would rest the back of the chairs and their heads against
The furniture, the straw chairs, the paintings, the mat full of
holes,--everything in that room was filthy, as if the dust of many
years had settled upon the articles and clung to the sweat of several
generations of lodgers.
By day the dining-room was dark; by night it was lighted by a
flickering kerosene lamp that smudged the ceiling with smoke.
The first time that Manuel, following his mother's instructions,
served at table, the landlady, as usual, presided. At her right sat an
old gentleman of cadaverous aspect,--a very fastidious personage who
conscientiously wiped the glasses and plates with his napkin. By his
side this gentleman had a vial and a dropper, and before eating he
would drop his medicine into the wine. To the left of the landlady
rose the Biscayan, a tall, stout woman of bestial appearance, with a
huge nose, thick lips and flaming cheeks; next to this lady, as flat
as a toad, was Dona Violante, whom the boarders jestingly called now
Dona Violent and now Dona Violated.
Near Dona Violante were grouped her daughters; then a priest who
prattled incessantly, a journalist whom they called the Superman,--a
very fair youth, exceedingly thin and exceedingly serious,--the
salesmen and the bookkeeper.
Manuel served the soup and all the boarders took it, sipping it with a
disagreeable inhalation. Then, according to his mother's orders, the
youngster remained standing there. Now followed the beans which, if
not for their size then for their hardness might have figured in an
artillery park, and one of the boarders permitted himself some
pleasantry about the edibleness of so petreous a vegetable; a
pleasantry that glided over the impassive countenance of Dona Casiana
without leaving the slightest trace.
Manuel sat about observing the boarders. It was the day after the
conspiracy; Dona Violante and her daughters were incommunicative and
in ugly humour. Dona Violante's inflated face at every moment creased
into a frown, and her restless, turbid eyes betrayed deep
preoccupation. Celia, the elder of the daughters, annoyed by the
priest's jests, began to answer violently, cursing everything human
and divine with a desperate, picturesque, raging hatred, which caused
loud, universal laughter. Irene, the culprit of the previous night's
scandal, a girl of some fifteen or sixteen years with a broad head,
large hands and feet, an as yet incompletely developed body and heavy,
ungainly movements, spoke scarcely a word and kept her gaze fixed upon
The meal at an end, the lodgers went off to their various tasks. At
night Manuel served supper without dropping a thing or making a single
mistake, but in five or six days he was forever doing things wrong.
It is impossible to judge how much of an impression was made upon the
boy by the usage and customs of the boarding roost and the species of
birds that inhabited it; but they could not have impressed him much.
Manuel, while he served at table in the days that followed, had to put
up with and endless succession of remarks, jests and practical jokes.
A thousand incidents, comical enough to one who did not have to suffer
them, turned up at every step; now they would discover tobacco in the
soup, now coal, ashes, and shreds of coloured paper in the
One of the salesmen, who was troubled with his stomach and spent his
days gazing at the reflection of his tongue in the mirror, would jump
up in fury when one of these jokes was perpetrated, and ask the
proprietress to discharge an incompetent booby who committed such
Manuel grew accustomed to these manifestations against his humble
person, and when they scolded him he retorted with the most bare-faced
impudence and indifference.
Soon he learned the life and miracles of every boarder and was ready
to talk back in outrageous fashion if they tried his patience.
Dona Violante and her daughters,--especially the old lady, showed a
great liking for the boy. The three women had now been living in the
house for several months; they paid little and when they couldn't pay
at all, they didn't. But they were easily satisfied. All three
occupied an inner room that opened onto the courtyard, whence came a
nauseating odour of fermented milk that escaped from the stable of the
The hole in which they lived was not large enough to move about in;
the room assigned to them by the landlady--in proportion to the size
of their rent and the insecurity of the payment--was a dark den
occupied by two narrow iron beds, between which, in the little space
left, was crammed a cot.
Here slept these gallant dames; by day they scoured all Madrid, and
spent their existence making arrangements with money-lenders, pawning
articles and taking them out of pawn.
The two young ladies, Celia and Irene, although they were mother and
daughter, passed for sisters. Dona Violante, in her better days, had
led the life of a petty courtesan and had succeeded in hoarding up a
tidy bit as provision against the winter of old age, when a former
patron convinced her that he had a remarkable combination for winning
a fortune at the Fronton. Dona Violante fell into the trap and her
patron left her without a centimo. Then Dona Violante went back to the
old life, became half blind and reached that lamentable state at which
surely she would have arrived much sooner if, early in her career, she
had developed a talent for living respectably.
The old lady passed most of the day in the confinement of her dark
room, which reeked of stable odors, rice powder and cosmetics; at
night she had to accompany her daughter and her granddaughter on
walks, and to cafes and theatres, on the hunt and capture of the kid,
as it was put by the travelling salesman who suffered from his
stomach,--a fellow half humorist and half grouch. When they were in
the house Celia and Irene, the daughter and the granddaughter of Dona
Violante, kept bickering at all hours; perhaps this continuous state
of irritation derived from the close quarters in which they lived;
perhaps so much passing as sisters in the eyes of others had convinced
them that they really were, so that they quarrelled and insulted one
another as such.
The one point on which they agreed was that Dona Violante was in their
way; the burden of the blind woman frightened away every libidinous
old fellow that came within the range of Irene and Celia.
The landlady, Dona Casiana, who at the slightest occasion suspected
the abandonment of the blind old woman, admonished the two maternally
to gird themselves with patience; Dona Violante, after all, was not,
like Calypso, immortal. But they replied that this toiling away at
full speed just to keep the old lady in medicine and syrups wasn't at
all to their taste.
Dona Casiana shook her head sadly, for her age and circumstances
enabled her to put herself in Dona Violante's place, and she argued
with this example, asking them to put themselves in the grandmother's
position; but neither was convinced.
Then the landlady advised them to peer into her mirror. She--as she
assured them--had descended from the heights of the Comandancia (her
husband had been a commander of the carbineers) to the wretchedness of
running a boarding-house, yet she was resigned, and her lips curled in
a stoic smile.
Dona Casiana knew the meaning of resignation and her only solace in
this life was a few volumes of novels in serial form, two or three
feuilletons, and a murky liquid mysteriously concocted by her own
hands out of sugared water and alcohol.
This beverage she poured into a square, wide-mouthed flask, into which
she placed a thick stem of anis. She kept it in the closet of her
Some one who discovered the flask with its black twig of anis compared
it to those bottles in which fetuses and similar nasty objects are
preserved, and since that time, whenever the landlady appeared with
rosy cheeks, a thousand comments--not at all favourable to the
madame's abstinence--ran from lodger to lodger.
"Dona Casiana's tipsy from her fetus-brandy."
"The good lady drinks too much of that fetus."
"The fetus has gone to her head...."
Manuel took a friendly part in this witty merriment of the boarders.
The boy's faculties of adaptation were indisputably enormous, for
after a week in the landlady's house it was as if he had always lived
His skill at magic was sharpened: whenever he was needed he was not to
be seen and no sooner was anybody's back turned than he was in the
street playing with the boys of the neighbourhood.
As a result of his games and his scrapes he got his clothes so dirty
and torn that the landlady nicknamed him the page Don Rompe-Galas,
recalling a tattered character from a sainete that Dona Casiana,
according to her affirmations, had seen played in her halycon days.
Generally, those who most made use of Manuel's services were the
journalist whom they called the Superman--he sent the boy off with
copy to the printers--and Celia and Irene, who employed him for
bearing notes and requests for money to their friends. Dona Violante,
whenever she pilfered a few centimos from her daughter would dispatch
Manuel to the store for a package of cigarettes, and give him a cigar
for the errand.
"Smoke it here," she would say. "Nobody'll see you."
Manuel would sit down upon a trunk and the old lady, a cigarette in
her mouth and blowing smoke through her nostrils, would recount
adventures from the days of her glory.
That room of Dona Violante and her daughters was a haunt of infection;
from the hooks nailed to the wall hung dirty rags, and between the
lack of air and the medley of odours a stench arose strong enough to
fell an ox.
Manuel listened to Dona Violante's stories with genuine delight. The
old lady was at her best in her commentaries.
"I tell you, my boy," she would say, "you can take my word for it. A
woman with a good pair of breasts and who happens to be a pretty warm
article"--and here the old lady pulled at her cigarette and with an
expressive gesture indicated what she meant by her no less expressive
word--"will always have a trail of men after her."
Dona Violante used to sing songs from Spanish _zarzuelas_ and
from French operettas, which produced in Manuel a terrible sadness. He
could not say why, but they gave him the impression of a world of
pleasures that was hopelessly beyond his reach. When he heard Dona
Violante sing the song from _El Juramento_
_Disdain is a sword with a double edge,
One slays with love, the other with forgetfulness...._
he had a vision of salons, ladies, amorous intrigues; but even more
than by this he was overwhelmed with sadness by the waltzes from _La
Dina_ and _La Grande Duchesse_.
Dona Violante's reflexions opened Manuel's eyes; the scenes that
occurred daily in the house, however, worked quite as much as these
toward such a result.
Another good instructor was found in the person of Dona Casiana's
niece, a trifle older than Manuel,--a thin, weakly chit of such a
malicious nature that she was always hatching plots against somebody.
If any one struck her she didn't shed a tear; she would go down to the
concierge's lodge when the concierge's little boy was left alone,
would grab him and pinch him and kick him, in this manner wreaking
vengeance for the blows she had received.
After eating, almost all of the boarders went off to their affairs;
Celia and Irene, together with the Biscayan, indulged in a grand
frolic by spying upon the women in Isabel's house, who would come out
on the balcony and chat, or signal to the neighbours. At times these
miserable brothel odalisques were not content with speaking; they
would dance and exhibit their calves.
Manuel's mother, as always, would be meditating upon heaven and hell,
giving little heed to the pettiness of this earth, and she could not
shield her son from such edifying spectacles. Petra's educational
system consisted only of giving Manuel an occasional blow and of
making him read prayer-books.
Petra imagined that she could see the traits of the machinist showing
up in the boy, and this troubled her. She wished Manuel to be like
her,--humble toward his superiors, respectful toward the priests...;
but a fine place this was for learning to respect anything!
One morning, after the solemn ceremony had been celebrated in which
all the women of the house issued into the corridor swinging their
night service, there burst from Dona Violante's room a clamour of
shouts, weeping, stamping and vociferation.
The landlady, the Biscayan and several of the boarders tiptoed into
the corridor to pry. Inside the quarrellers must have realized that
they were being spied upon, for they opened the door and the fray
continued in low tones.
Manuel and the landlady's niece remained in the entry. They could hear
Irene's sobbing and the scolding voices of Celia and Dona Violante.
At first they could not make out what was being said; but soon the
three women forgot their determination to speak low and their voices
rose in anger.
"Go! Go to the House of Mercy and have them rid you of that swelling!
Wretch!" cried Celia.
"Well, what of it?" retorted Irene. "I'm caught, am I? I know it. What
Dona Violante opened the door to the entry furiously; Manuel and the
landlady's niece scampered off, and the old lady came out in a patched
flannel shift and a weed kerchief tied about her ears, and began to
pace to and fro, dragging her worn-out shoes from end to end of the
"The sow! Worse than a sow!" she muttered. "Did any one ever see such
a filthy creature!"
Manuel went off to the parlour, where the landlady and the Biscayan
were chatting in low tones. The landlady's niece, dying with
curiosity, questioned the two women with growing irritation:
"But why are they scolding Irene?"
The landlady and the Biscayan exchanged amicable glances and burst
"Tell me," cried the child insistently, clutching at her aunt's
kerchief. "What of it if she has that bundle? Who gave her that
The landlady and the Biscayan could no longer restrain their guffaws,
while the little girl stared avidly up at them, trying to make out the
meaning of what she heard.
"Who gave her that package?" repeated the Biscayan between outbursts.
"My dear little girl, we really don't know who gave her that package."
All the boarders repeated the niece's question with enthusiastic
delight, and at every table discussion some wag would be sure to
interrupt suddenly with:
"Now I see that you know who gave her that package." The remark would
be greeted with uproarious merriment.
Then, after a few days had passed, there was rumour of a mysterious
consultation held by Dona Violante's daughters with the wife of a
barber on Jardines street,--a sort of provider of little angels for
limbo; it was said that Irene returned from the conference in a coach,
very pale, and that she had to be put at once to bed. Certainly the
girl did not leave her room for more than a week and, when she
appeared, she looked like a convalescent and the frowns had
disappeared completely from the face of her mother and her
"She looks like an infanticide," said the priest when he saw her
again, "but she's prettier than ever."
Whether any transgression had been committed, none could say with
surety; soon everything was forgotten; a patron appeared for the girl,
and he was, from all appearances, wealthy. In commemoration of so
happy an event the boarders participated in the treat. After the
supper they drank cognac and brandy, the priest played the guitar,
Irene danced _sevillanas_ with less grace than a bricklayer, as
the landlady said; the Superman sang some _fados_ that he had
learned in Portugal, and the Biscayan, not to be outdone, burst forth
into some _malaguenas_ that might just as well have been a
_cante flamenco_ or the Psalms of David.
Only the blond student with the eyes of steel abstained from the
celebration; he was absorbed in his thoughts.
"And you, Roberto," Celia said to him several times,--"don't you sing
or do anything?"
"Not I," he replied coldly.
"You haven't any blood in your veins."
The youth looked at her for a moment, shrugged his shoulders
indifferently and his pale lips traced a smile of disdainful mockery.
Then, as almost always happened in these boarding-house sprees, some
wag turned on the music-box in the corridor and the duet from _La
Mascotte_ together with the waltz from _La Diva_ rose in
confusion upon the air; the Superman and Celia danced a couple of
waltzes and the party wound up with everybody singing a
_habanera_, until they wearied and each owl flew off to his nest.
Oh, love, love!--What's Don Telmo Doing?--Who is Don
Telmo?--Wherein the Student and Don Telmo Assume Certain
The Baroness was hardly ever seen in the house, except during the
early hours of the morning and the night. She dined and supped
outside. If the landlady was to be credited, she was an adventuress
whose position varied considerably, for one day she would be moving to
a costly apartment and sporting a carriage, while the next she would
disappear for several months in the germ-ridden hole of some cheap
The Baroness's daughter, a child of some twelve or fourteen years,
never appeared in the dining-room or in the corridor; her mother
forbade all communication with the lodgers. Her name was Kate. She was
a fair girl, very light-complexioned and exceedingly winsome. Only the
student Roberto spoke to her now and then in English.
The youth was enthusiastic over her.
That summer the Baroness's streak of bad luck must have come to an
end, for she began to make herself some fine clothes and prepared to
For several weeks a modiste and her assistant came daily, with gowns
and hats for the Baroness and Kate.
Manuel, one night, saw the modiste's assistant go by with a huge box
in her hand and was smitten.
He followed her at a distance in great fear lest she see him. As he
stole on behind, he wondered what he could say to such a maiden if he
were to accompany her. It must be something gallant, exquisite; he
even imagined that she was at his side and he racked his brain for
beautiful phrases and delicate compliments, yet nothing but
commonplaces rewarded his search. In the meantime the assistant and
her box were lost in the crowd and he could not catch sight of them
The memory of that maiden was for Manuel as an enchanting music, a
fancy upon which were reared still wilder fancies. Often he made up
tales in which always he figured as the hero and the assistant as the
heroine. While Manuel bemoaned the harshness of fate, Roberto, the
blond student, gave himself up likewise to melancholy, brooding upon
the Baroness's daughter. The student was forced to endure jests
especially from Celia, who, according to certain evil tongues, was
trying to rouse him from his habitual frigidity. But Roberto gave her
Some days later the house was agog with curiosity.
As the boarders came in from the street, they greeted each other
jokingly, repeating in the manner of a pass-word: "Who is Don Telmo?
What's Don Telmo doing?"
One day the district police-commissioner came and spoke to Don Telmo,
and some one heard or invented the report that the two men were
discussing the notorious crime on Malasana Street. Upon hearing this
news the expectant inquisitiveness of the boarders waxed great, and
all, half in jest and half in earnest, arranged to keep a watch upon
the mysterious gentleman.
Don Telmo was the name of the cadaverous old fellow who wiped his cups
and spoons with his napkin, and his reserved manner seemed to invite
observation. Taciturn, indifferent, never joining the conversation, a
man of few words who never made any complaints, he attracted attention
by the very fact that he seemed intent upon not attracting it.
His only visible occupation was to wind the seven or eight clocks of
the house and to regulate them when they got out of order,--an event
of common occurrence.
Don Telmo had the features of a very sad man,--one in profound sorrow.
His livid countenance betrayed fathomless dejection. He wore his white
beard and his hair short; his brows fell like brushes over his grey
In the house he went around wrapped in a faded coat, with a Greek
bonnet and cloth slippers. When he went out he donned a long frock
coat and a very tall silk hat; only on certain summer days would he
wear a Havana hat of woven straw.
For more than a month Don Telmo was the topic of conversation in the
In the famous trial of the Malasana Street crime a servant declared
that one afternoon she saw Dona Celsa's son in an aqueduct of the
Plaza de Oriente, talking with a lame old man. For the guests this man
could be none other than Don Telmo. With this suspicion they set about
spying upon the old man; he, however, had a sharp scent and sniffed
the state of affairs at once; the boarders, seeing how bootless their
attempts were proving, tried to ransack his room; they used a number
of keys until they got the door open and when they had forced an
entrance, discovered nothing more that a closet fastened by a
The Biscayan and Roberto, the blond student, opposed this campaign of
espionage. The Superman, the priest, the salesmen and the women of the
establishment made up that the Biscayan and the student were allies of
Don Telmo, and, in all probability, accomplices in the Malasana Street
"Without a doubt," averred the Superman, "Don Telmo killed Dona Celsa
Nebot; the Biscayan poured oil over the body and set it afire, and
Roberto hid the jewels in the house on Amaniel Street."
"That cold bird!" replied Celia. "What could he do?"
"Nothing, nothing. We must keep on their track," said the curate.
"And get some money out of that old Shylock," added the Superman.
This espionage, carried on half in joke and half in all seriousness,
wound up in debates and disputes, and as a result two groups were
formed in the house; that of the Sensible folk, comprised by the three
criminals and the landlady, and that of the Foolish, in which were
enrolled all the rest.
This limitation of sides forced Roberto and Don Telmo into intimacy,
so that the student changed his place at the table and sat next to the
One night, after eating, while Manuel was removing the service, the
plates and the cups, Don Telmo and Roberto were engaged in
The student was a dogmatic reasoner, dry, rectilinear, never swerving
from his point of view; he spoke but little, but when he did speak, it
was in a sententious manner.
One day, discussing whether or not young men should be ambitious and
look to the future, Roberto asserted that the first was the proper
"Well, that isn't what you're doing," commented the Superman.
"I am absolutely convinced," replied Roberto, "that some day I'm going
to be a millionaire. I am engaged in constructing the machinery that
will bring me a fortune."
The Superman posed as a man of the world who had seen many things;
upon hearing this he permitted himself a scoffing remark concerning
Roberto's ability, and the youth retorted in so violent and aggressive
a manner that the journalist lost his composure and blurted out a
string of apologies.
Afterwards, when Don Telmo and Roberto were left alone at the table,
they continued talking, and from the general theme as to whether young
folk should or should not be ambitious, they passed on to the
student's hopes of some day being a millionaire.
"I'm convinced that I shall be one," said the boy. "In my family there
have been a number of individuals with great luck."
"That's all very well, Roberto," muttered the old man. "But one must
know how to become wealthy."
"Don't imagine that my hope is illusory; I'm going to inherit, and not
a small amount, either; I'm heir to a vast sum ... millions.... The
foundations of my work and the framework are already completed; all I
need now is money."
Don Telmo's countenance was crossed by an expression of disagreeable
"Don't worry," replied Roberto, "I'm not going to ask you for it."
"My dear boy, if I had it, I'd give it to you with pleasure, and free
of interest. They think I'm a millionaire."
"No. I tell you I'm not trying to get a centimo from you. All I ask is
a bit of advice."
"Speak, then, speak. I'm all attention," answered the old man, resting
an elbow upon the table.
Manuel, who was taking off the tablecloth, cocked his ears.
At that juncture one of the salesmen entered the dining-room, and
Roberto, who was about to say something, grew silent and looked
impertinently at the intruder. The student was an aristocratic type
with blond hair, thick and combed back, and moustache of glittering
white, like silver; his skin was somewhat tanned by the sun.
"Won't you continue?" asked Don Telmo.
"No," answered the student, staring at the salesman. "For I don't want
anybody to hear what I have to say."
"Come to my room, then," replied Don Telmo. "There we can talk
undisturbed. We'll have coffee up in my room. Manuel!" he ordered.
"Bring us two coffees."
Manuel, who was deeply interested in discovering what the student had
to say, dashed out into the street on his errand. He was more than a
quarter of an hour in returning with the coffee, and supposed that
Roberto by this time had finished his story.
He knocked at Don Telmo's door and was resolved to linger there as
long as possible, that he might catch all he could of the
conversation. He began to dust Don Telmo's lamp-table with a cloth.
"And how did you ascertain that," Don Telmo was asking, "if your
family didn't know it?"
"Quite by accident," answered the student. "A couple of years ago,
about this time of the year, I wished to give a present to a sister,
who is a protegee of mine, and who is very fond of playing the piano.
It occurred to me, three days before her birthday, to purchase two
operas, have them bound and send them to her. I wanted to have the
book bound immediately, but at the shops they told me there was no
time; I was walking along with my operas under my arm in the vicinity
of the Plaza de las Descalzas when in the back wall of a convent I
caught sight of a tiny bookbinder's shop,--like a cave with steps
leading down. I asked the man,--a gnarled old fellow,--whether he
would bind the book for me in a couple of days, and he said 'Yes.'
'Very well,' I told him, 'then I'll call within two days.'--'I'll
send it to you; let me have your address.' I gave him my address and
he asked my name. 'Roberto Hasting y Nunez de Letona.'--'Are you a
Nunez de Latona?' he inquired, gazing at me curiously. 'Yes, sir.'--
'Do you come from la Rioja?'--'Yes, and suppose I do?' I retorted,
provoked by all this questioning. And the binder, whose mother was a
Nunez de Latona and came from la Rioja, told me the story I've just
told you. At first I took it all as a joke; then, after some time, I
wrote to my mother, and she wrote back that everything was quite so,
and that she recalled something of the whole matter."
Don Telmo's gaze strayed over toward Manuel.
"What are you doing here?" he snarled. "Get out; I don't want you
going around telling tales...."
"I'm no tattle-tale."
"Very well, then, get a move on."
Manuel went out, and Don Telmo and Roberto continued their
conversation. The boarders showered Manuel with questions, but he
refused to open his mouth. He had decided to join the group of the
This friendship between the old man and the student served as an
incitement for the continuation of the espionage. One of the salesmen
learned that Don Telmo drew up contracts of sales on reversion and
made a living by lending money on houses and furniture, and at other
such usurious business.
Some one saw him in the Rastro in an old clothes shop that probably
belonged to him, and invented the tale that he had gold coins
concealed in his room and that he played with them at night upon the
It was also discovered that Don Telmo frequently paid visits to a very
elegant, good looking young lady, who was, according to some, his
sweetheart, and to others, his niece.
On the following Sunday Manuel overheard a conversation between the
old man and the student. In a dark room there was a transom that
opened into Don Telmo's room, and from this position he played the
"So he refuses to furnish any more data?" Don Telmo was asking.
"Absolutely," said the student. "And he assures me that the reason for
the name of Fermin de Nunez de Latona not appearing in the parish
register was--forgery; that this was effected by a certain Shaphter,
one of Bandon's agents, and that afterwards the curates took advantage
of it to acquire possession of some chaplaincies. I am certain that
the town where Fermin Nunez was born was either Arnedo or Autol."
Don Telmo carefully inspected a large folio document: the genealogy of
"What course do you think I ought to pursue?" asked the student.
"You need money; but it's so hard to find that!" muttered the old man.
"Why don't you marry?"
"And what good would that do?"
"I mean some wealthy woman...."
Here Don Telmo lowered his voice to an inaudible pitch and after a few
words they separated.
The espionage of the boarders became so obstructive to the men spied
upon that the Biscayan and Don Telmo served notice on the landlady of
their removal. Dona Casiana's desolation, when she learned of their
decision, was exceedingly great; several times she had to resort to
the closet and surrender herself to the consolations of the beverage
of her own concoction.
The boarders were so disappointed at the flight of the Biscayan and of
Don Telmo that neither the altercations between Irene and Celia nor
the stories told by the priest Don Jacinto, who stressed the smutty
note, were potent enough to draw them from their silence.
The bookkeeper, a jaundiced fellow with an emaciated face and a beard
like that of a monumental Jew, exceedingly taciturn and timid, had
burst into speech in his excitement over the intrigues invented and
fancied in the life of Don Telmo; now he became from moment to moment
sallower than ever with his hypochondria.
Don Telmo's departure was paid for by the student and Don Manuel. As
far as the student was concerned they dared no more than twit him on
his complicity with the old man and the Biscayan; at Manuel, however,
they all kept screeching and scolding when they weren't kicking him.
One of the salesmen,--the fellow who was troubled with his stomach,
exasperated by the boredom, the heat and his uncertain digestion,
found no other distraction than insulting and berating Manuel while he
served at table, whether or not there were cause.
"Go on, you cheap fool!" he would say. "You're not worth the food you
This refrain, added to others of the same tenor, began to weary
Manuel. One day the salesman heaped the insults and the vilification
upon him more plentifully than ever. They had sent the boy out for two
coffees, and he was slow in returning; on that particular day the
delay was not due to any fault of his, for he had been kept waiting a
"They ought to put a pack-saddle on you, you ass!" shouted the agent
as Manuel entered.
"You won't be the one to do it!" retorted the boy impudently, as he
placed the cups upon the table.
"I won't? Do you want to see me?"
"Yes, I do."
The salesman got up and kicked Manuel in the shins; the poor boy saw
stars. He gave a cry of pain and then, furious, seized a plate and
sent it flying at the agent's head; the latter ducked and the
projectile crossed the dining-room, crashed through a window pane and
fell into the courtyard, where it smashed with a racket. The salesman
grabbed one of the coffee-pots that was filled with coffee and milk
and hurled it at Manuel with such good aim that it struck the boy in
the face; the youth, blinded with rage and by the coffee and milk,
rushed upon his enemy, cornered him, and took revenge for the insults
and blows with an endless succession of kicks and punches.
"He's killing me! He's killing me!" shrieked the agent in feminine
"Thief! Clown!" shouted Manuel, employing the street's choicest
repertory of insults.
The Superman and the priest seized Manuel by the arms, leaving him at
the mercy of the salesman, who, beholding the boy thus corralled,
tried to wreak vengeance; but when he was ready to strike, Manuel gave
him such a forceful kick in the stomach that the fellow vomited up his
Everybody took sides against Manuel, except Roberto, who defended him.
The agent retired to his room, summoned the landlady, and told her
that he refused to remain another moment as long as Petra's son was in
The landlady, whose chief interest was to retain her boarder,
communicated her decision to her servant.
"Now see what you've done. You can't stay here any longer," said Petra
to her son.
"All right. That clown will pay for these," replied the boy, nursing
the welts on his forehead. "I tell you, if I ever meet him I'm going
to smash in his head."
"You take good care not to say a word to him."
At this moment the student happened to enter the dining-room.
"You did well, Manuel," he exclaimed, turning to Petra. "What right
had that blockhead to insult him? In this place every boss has a right
to attack his neighbour if he doesn't do as all the others wish. What
a cowardly gang!"
As he spoke, Roberto blanched with rage; then he grew calm and asked
"Where are you going to take Manuel now?"
"To a cobbler's shop that belongs to a relative of mine on Aguila
"Is it in the poorer quarters?"
"I'll come to see you some day."
Before Manuel had gone to bed, Roberto appeared again in the
"Listen," he said to Manuel. "If you know any strange place in the
slums where criminals get together, let me hear. I'll go with you."
"I'll let you know, never you mind."
"Fine. See you again. Good-bye!"
Roberto extended his hand to Manuel, who pressed it with deep
The Regeneration of Footwear and The Lion of The Shoemaker's
Art--The First Sunday--An Escapade--El Bizco and his Gang.
The inhabitant of Madrid who at times finds himself by accident in the
poor quarters near the Manzanares river, is surprised at the spectacle
of poverty and sordidness, of sadness and neglect presented by the
environs of Madrid with their wretched Rondas, laden with dust in the
summer and in winter wallowing in mire. The capital is a city of
contrasts; it presents brilliant light in close proximity to deep
gloom; refined life, almost European, in the centre; in the suburbs,
African existence, like that of an Arab village. Some years ago, not
many, in the vicinity of the Ronda de Sevilla and of el Campillo de
Gil Imon, there stood a house of suspicious aspect and of not very
favourable repute, to judge by popular rumour. The observer ...
In this and other paragraphs of the same style I had placed some hope,
for they imparted to my novel a certain phantasmagoric and mysterious
atmosphere; but my friends have convinced me I ought to suppress these
passages, arguing that they would be quite in place in a Parisian
novel, but not in one dealing with Madrid,--not at all. They add,
moreover, that here nobody goes astray, not even if one wishes to.
Neither are there here any observers, nor houses of suspicious aspect,
nor anything else. In resignation, then, I have excised these
paragraphs, through which I hoped some day to be elected to the
Spanish Academy; and so I continue my tale in more pedestrian
It came about, then, that on the day following the row in the
dining-room of the lodging-house, Petra, very early in the morning,
woke Manuel and told him to dress.
The boy recalled the scene of the previous day; he verified it by
raising his hand to his forehead, for the bruises still pained him,
and from his mother's tone he understood that she persisted in her
resolve to take him to the cobbler's.
After Manuel had dressed, mother and son left the house and went into
the bun-shop for a cup of coffee and milk. Then they walked down to
Arenal Street, crossed the Plaza del Oriente, and the Viaduct, thence
through Rosario Street. Continuing along the walls of a barracks they
reached the heights at whose base runs the Ronda de Segovia. From this
eminence there was a view of the yellowish countryside that reached as
far as Jetafe and Villaverde, and the San Isidro cemeteries with their
grey mudwalls and their black cypresses.
From the Ronda de Segovia, which they covered in a short time, they
climbed up Aguila Street, and paused before a house at the corner of
the Campillo de Gil Imon.
There were two shoe shops opposite one another and both closed.
Manuel's mother, who could not recall which was her relative's place,
inquired at the tavern.
"Senor Ignacio's over at the big house," answered the tavern-keeper.
"I think the cobbler's come already, but he hasn't opened the shop
Mother and son had to wait until the shop was opened. The building was
not the tiny, evil-boding one, but it looked as if it had an atrocious
desire to cave in, for here and there it, too, showed cracks, holes
and all manner of disfigurements. It had a lower and upper floor,
large and wide balconies the balustrades of which were gnawed by rust
and the diminutive panes of glass held in place by leaden strips.
On the ground floor of the house, in the part that faced Aguila
Street, there was a livery-stable, a carpenter's shop, a tavern and
the cobbler's shop owned by Petra's relation. This establishment
displayed over the entrance a sign that read:
_For The Regeneration of Footwear._
The historian of the future will surely find in this sign proof of
how widespread, during several epochs, was a certain notion of
national regeneration, and it will not surprise him that this idea,
which was launched in the aim to reform and regenerate the Constitution
and the Spanish people, came to an end upon the signboard of a shop on
a foresaken corner of the slums, where the only thing done was the
reformation and regeneration of footwear.
We will not deny the influence of this regenerating theory upon the
proprietor of the establishment _For The Regeneration of Footwear;_
but we must point out that this presumptuous legend was put up in token
of his defiance of the cobbler across the way, and we must register
likewise that it had been answered by another, and even more
One fine morning the workmen in the establishment for _The
Regeneration of Footwear_ were dumfounded to find staring them in
the face the sign of the rival shop. It was a beautiful signboard about
two metres long, bearing this inscription:
_The Lion of the Shoemaker's Art_
This in itself was quite tolerable; the terrible, annihilating thing
about it was the painting that sprawled over the middle of the board.
A handsome yellow lion with the face of a man and with wavy mane,
standing erect; in his front paws he held a boot, apparently of
patent-leather. Beneath this representation was printed the following:
_You may break, but never unstitch it._
This was a crushing motto: A lion (wild beast) trying to unseam the
boot made by the Lion (shoemaker), and powerless before the task! What
a humiliation for the lion! What a triumph for the shoemaker! The
lion, in this case, was _For The Regeneration of Footwear,_
which, as the saying goes, had been compelled to bite the dust.
In addition to Senor Ignacio's sign there was, in one of the balconies
of the large house, the bust of a woman, made probably of pasteboard,
with lettering beneath: _Perfecta Ruiz: Ladies' Hair Dressing;_
on the side walls of the main entrance there hung several
announcements unworthy of occupying the attention of the
aforementioned historian, in which were offered low-priced rooms with
or without bed, amanuenses and seamstresses. A single card, upon which
were pasted horizontally, vertically and obliquely a number of cut-out
figures, deserved to go down in history for its laconicism. It read:
_Parisian Styles. Escorihuela, Tailor._
Manuel, who had not taken the trouble to read all these signs, went
into the building by a little door at the side of the livery-stable
entrance, and walked through the corridor to a very filthy courtyard.
When he returned to the street the cobbler's shop had already been
opened. Petra and her boy entered.
"Isn't Senor Ignacio in?" she asked.
"He'll be here in a second," answered a youngster who was piling up
old shoes in the middle of the shop.
"Tell him that his cousin is here,--Petra."
Senor Ignacio appeared. He was a man of between forty and fifty, thin
and wizened. Petra and he got into conversation, while the boy and a
little urchin continued to heap up the old shoes. Manuel was looking
on, when the boy said to him:
"Come on, you. Lend a hand!"
Manuel pitched in, and when the three had ended their labours, they
waited for Petra and Senor Ignacio to finish chatting. Petra was
recounting Manuel's latest exploits to her cousin and the cobbler
listened smilingly. The man bore no signs of gruffness; he was blond
and beardless; upon his upper lip sprouted a few saffron-hued hairs.
His complexion was leathery, wrinkled; the deep furrows of his face,
and his wearied mien, gave him the appearance of a weakling. He spoke
with a certain ironic vagueness.
"You're going to stay here," said Petra to Manuel.
"He's an amiable rogue," exclaimed Senor Ignacio, laughing. "He agrees
"Yes; he takes everything calmly. But, look--" she added, turning to
her son, "if ever I find out that you carry on as you did yesterday,
you'll hear from me!"
Manuel said good-bye to his mother.
"Were you very long in that town of Soria with my cousin?" Senor
"And did you work very hard there?"
"I didn't work at all."
"Well, sonny, you can't get out of it here. Come. Sit down and get
busy. These are your cousins," added Senor Ignacio, indicating the
youth and the little boy.
"They are a pair of warriors, too."
The youth's name was Leandro, and he was well-built; in no respect did
he resemble his father. He had thick lips and a thick nose, an
obstinate, manly expression; the other was a boy of about Manuel's
age, frail, thin, with a rascally look, and called Vidal.
Senor Ignacio and the three boys sat down around a wooden block formed
of a tree-trunk with a deep groove running through it. The labour
consisted in undoing and taking apart old boots and shoes, which
arrived at the shop from every direction in huge, badly tied bales and
in sacks with paper designations sewed to the burlap. The boot
destined to be drawn and quartered was laid upon the block; there it
received a stroke or more from a knife until the heel was severed;
then, with the nippers the various layers of sole were ripped off;
with the scissors they cut off buttons and laces, and everything was
sorted into its corresponding basket: in one, the heels; in others,
the rubbers, the latchets, the buckles.
So low had _The Regeneration of Footwear_ descended: it justified
its title in a manner quite distinct from that intended by the one who
had bestowed it.
Senor Ignacio, a master workman, had been compelled through lack of
business to abandon the awl and the shoemaker's stirrup for the
nippers and the knife; creating for destroying; the fashioning of new
boots for the disembowelling of old. The contrast was bitter; but
Senor Ignacio could find consolation in looking across at his
neighbour, he of the _Lion of The Shoemaker's Art_, who only at
rare intervals would receive an order for some cheap pair of boots.
The first morning of work was infinitely boresome to Manuel; this
protracted inactivity became unbearable. At noon a bulky old woman
entered the shop with their lunch in a basket. This was Senor
"And my wife?" the cobbler asked her.
"She's gone washing."
"And Salome Isn't she coming?"
"No. She got some work in a house for the whole week."
The old lady extracted from the basket a pot, dishes, napkins,
cutlery, and a huge loaf of bread; she laid a cloth upon the floor and
everybody squatted down around it. She poured the soup from the pot
into the plates, into which each one crumbled a bit of bread, and they
began to eat. Then the old woman doled out to each his portion of
boiled meat and vegetables, and, as they ate, the cobbler discoursed
briefly upon the future of Spain and the reasons for national
backwardness,--a topic that appeals to most Spaniards, who consider
Senor Ignacio was a mild liberal, a man who swelled with enthusiasm
over these words about the national sovereignty, and who spoke openly
of the Glorious Revolution. In matters of religion he advocated
freedom of worship; his ideal would be for Spain to have an equal
number of priests of the Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and every other
denomination, for thus, he asserted, each would choose the dogma that
seemed to him best. But one thing he'd certainly do if he had a say in
the government. He would expel all the monks and nuns, for they're
like the mange: the weaker the sufferer, the more it thrives. To this
argument Leandro, the elder son, added that as far as the monks, nuns
and other small fry were concerned, the best course with them was to
lop off their heads like hogs, and with regard to the priests, whether
Catholic, Protestant or Chinese, nothing would be lost if there were
nary a one.
The old lady, too, joined the conversation, and since to her, as a
huckstress of vegetables, politics was chiefly a question between
marketwomen and the municipal guards, she spoke of a row in which the
amiable ladies of the Cebada market had discharged their garden
produce at the heads of several redcoats who were defending a
trouble-maker of the market. The huckstresses wanted to organize a
union, and then lay down the law and fix prices. Now this didn't at
all appeal to her.
"What the deuce!" she exclaimed. "What right have they to take away a
person's stock if he wants to sell it cheaper? Suppose I take it into
my head to give it all away free."
"Why no, senora," differed Leandro. "That's not right."
"And why not?"
"Because it isn't. Because tradesfolk ought to help one another, and
if you, let's suppose, do as you say, you prevent somebody else from
selling, and that's why Socialism was invented,--to favour man's
"All right, then. Let them give two duros to man's industry and kill
The woman spoke very phlegmatically and sententiously. Her calm manner
harmonized perfectly with her huge person, which was as thick and
rigid as a tree-trunk; her face was fleshy and of stolid features, her
wrinkles deep; pouches of loose flesh sagged beneath her eyes; on her
head she wore a black kerchief, tightly knotted around her temples.
Senora Jacoba--that was her name--was a woman who probably felt
neither heat nor cold; summer and winter she spent the dead hours
seated by her vegetable stand at the Puerta de Moros; if she sold a
head of lettuce between sunrise and sunset, it was a great deal.
After eating, some of the shoemaker's family went off to the courtyard
for their siesta, while others remained in the shop.
Vidal, the man's younger son, sprawled out in the patio beside Manuel,
and having inquired into the cause of the bumps that stood out on his
cousin's forehead, asked:
"Have you ever been on this street before?"
"We have great times around here."
"You do, eh?"
"I should say so. Haven't you a girl?"
"Well, there are lots of girls 'round here that would like to have a
"Yes, sir! Over where we live there's a very pretty little thing, a
friend of my girl. You can hitch up with her."
"But don't you live in this house?"
"No. We live in Embajadores lane. It's my aunt Salome and my
grandmother who live here. Over where we are--oh, boy!--the times I've
"In the town where I come from," said Manuel, not to be dwarfed by his
cousin, "there were mountains higher than twenty of your houses here."
"In Madrid we've got the Monte de Principe Pio."
"But it can't be as high as the one in that town."
"It can't? Why, in Madrid everything's the best."
Manuel was not a little put out by the superiority which his cousin
tried to assume by speaking to him about women in the tone of an
experienced man about town who knew them through and through. After
the noonday nap and a game of mus, over which the shoemaker and a few
neighbours managed to get into a wrangle, Senor Ignacio and his
children went off to their house. Manuel supped at Senora Jacoba's,
the vegetable huckstress's, and slept in a beautiful bed that looked
to him far better than the one at the boarding-house.
Once in, he weighed the pros and contras of his new social position,
and in the midst of his calculations as to whether the needle of the
balance inclined to this side or that, he fell asleep.
At first, the monotony of the labour and the steady application
bothered Manuel; but soon he grew accustomed to one thing and another,
so that the days seemed shorter and the work less irksome.
The first Sunday Manuel was fast asleep in Senora Jacoba's house when
Vidal came in and waked him. It was after eleven; the marketwoman, as
usual, had departed at dawn for her stall, leaving the boy alone.
"What are you doing there?" asked Vidal. "Why don't you get up?"
"Why? What time is it?"
Manuel dressed hurriedly and they both left the house. Nearby,
opposite Aguila street, on a little square, they joined a group of
boys who were playing _chito_, and they followed the fortunes of
the game with deep interest.
At noon Vidal said to his cousin:
"Today we're going to eat yonder."
"At your house?"
"Yes. Come on."
Vidal, whose specialty was finding things, discovered close by the
fountain of the Ronda, which is near Aguila Street, an old,
wide-brimmed high hat; the poor thing was hidden in a corner, perhaps
through modesty. He began to kick it along and send it flying through
the air and Manuel joined in the enterprise, so that between the two
they transported the relic, venerable with antiquity, from the Ronda
de Segovia to that of Toledo, thence to the Ronda de Embajadores,
until they abandoned it in the middle of the street, minus top and
brim. Having committed this perversity, Manuel and Vidal debouched
into the Paseo da las Acacias and went into a house whose entrance
consisted of a doorless archway.
The two boys walked through a narrow passage paved with cobblestones
until they reached a courtyard, and then, by one of the numerous
staircases they climbed to the balcony of the first floor, on which
opened a row of doors and windows all painted blue.
"Here's where we live," said Vidal, pointing to one of the doors.
They entered. Senor Ignacio's home was small; it comprised two
bedrooms, a parlour, the kitchen and a dark room. The first habitation
was the parlour, furnished with a pine bureau, a sofa, several straw
chairs and a green mirror stuck with chromos and photographs and
covered with red netting. The cobbler's family used the parlour as the
dining-room on Sundays, because it was the lightest and the most
spacious of their rooms.
When Manuel and Vidal arrived the family had been waiting for them a
long time. They all sat down to table, and Salome, the cobbler's
sister-in-law, took charge of serving the meal. She resembled very
closely her sister, the mother of Vidal. Both, of medium height, had
short, saucy noses and black, pretty eyes; despite this physical
similarity, however, their appearance differentiated them sharply.
Vidal's mother,--called Leandra,--untidy, unkempt, loathsome, and
betraying traces of ill humour, seemed much older than Salome,
although but three or four years separated them. Salome had a merry,
Yet, consider the irony of fate! Leandra, despite her slovenly ways,
her sour disposition and her addiction to drink, was married to a good
hardworking man, while Salome, endowed with excellent gifts of
industriousness and sweet temper, had wound up by going to live with
an outcast who made his way by swindling, pilfering and browbeating
and who had given her two children. Her humble or servile spirit,
confronted with this wild, independent nature, made Salome adore her
man, and she deceived herself into considering him a tremendous,
energetic fellow, though he was in all truth a coward and a tramp. The
bully had seen just how matters stood, and whenever it pleased him he
would stamp into the house and demand the pay that Salome earned by
sewing at the machine, at five centimos per two yards. Unresistingly
she handed him the product of her sweating toil, and many a time the
ruffian, not content with depriving her of the money, gave her a
beating into the bargain.
Salome's two children were not today in Senor Ignacio's home; on
Sundays, after dressing them very neatly, their mother would send them
to a relative of hers,--the proprietress of a workshop,--where they
spent the afternoon.
At the meal Manuel listened to the conversation without taking part.
They were discussing one of the girls of the neighbourhood who had run
off with a wealthy horse-dealer, a married man with a family.
"She did wisely," declared Leandra, draining a glass of wine.
"If she didn't know he was married...."
"What's the difference?" retorted Leandra with an air of unconcern.
"Plenty. How would you like a woman to carry off your husband?" Salome
asked her sister.
"Yes, nowadays, we know," interrupted Senor Ignacio's mother. "Of two
women there isn't one that's respectable."
"A great ways any one'll go by being respectable," snarled Leandra.
"Poverty and hunger.... If a woman weren't to get married, then she
might make a change and even acquire money."
"I don't see how," asserted Salome.
"How? Even if she had to go into the business."
Senor Ignacio, disgusted, turned his head away from his wife, and his
elder son, Leandro, eyed his mother grimly, severely.
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