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About this time the following items of news appeared in the Madrid newspapers:
"There is no truth whatever in the report that there has been an insurrection in the neighborhood of Orbajosa. Our correspondent in that place informs us that the country is so little disposed for adventures that the further presence of the Batalla brigade in that locality is considered unnecessary."
"It is said that the Batalla brigade will leave Orbajosa, as troops are not required there, to go to Villajuan de Nahara, where guerillas have made their appearance."
"The news has been confirmed that the Aceros, with a number of mounted followers, are ranging the district of Villajuan, adjacent to the judicial district of Orbajosa. The governor of the province of X. has telegraphed to the Government that Francisco Acero entered Las Roquetas, where he demanded provisions and money. Domingo Acero (Faltriquera), was ranging the Jubileo mountains, actively pursued by the Civil Guards, who killed one of his men and captured another. Bartolome Acero is the man who burned the registry office of Lugarnoble and carried away with him as hostages the alcalde and two of the principal landowners."
"Complete tranquillity reigns in Orbajosa, according to a letter which we have before us, and no one there thinks of anything but cultivating the garlic fields, which promise to yield a magnificent crop. The neighboring districts, however, are infested with guerillas, but the Batalla brigade will make short work of these."
Orbajosa was, in fact, tranquil. The Aceros, that warlike dynasty, worthy, in the opinion of some, of figuring in the "Romancero," had taken possession of the neighboring province; but the insurrection was not spreading within the limits of the episcopal city. It might be supposed that modern culture had at last triumphed in its struggle with the turbulent habits of the great city of disorder, and that the latter was tasting the delights of a lasting peace. So true is this that Caballuco himself, one of the most important figures of the historic rebellion of Orbajosa, said frankly to every one that he did not wish to quarrel with the Government nor involve himself in a business which might cost him dear.
Whatever may be said to the contrary, the impetuous nature of Ramos had quieted down with years, and the fiery temper which he had received with life from the ancestral Caballucos, the most valiant race of warriors that had ever desolated the earth, had grown cooler. It is also related that in those days the new governor of the province held a conference with this important personage, and received from his lips the most solemn assurances that he would contribute as far as in him lay to the tranquillity of the country, and would avoid doing any thing that might give rise to disturbances. Reliable witnesses declare that he was to be seen in friendly companionship with the soldiers, hobnobbing with this sergeant or the other in the tavern, and it was even said that an important position in the town-hall of the capital of the province was to be given him. How difficult it is for the historian who tries to be impartial to arrive at the exact truth in regard to the sentiments and opinions of the illustrious personages who have filled the world with their fame! He does not know what to hold by, and the absence of authentic records often gives rise to lamentable mistakes. Considering events of such transcendent importance as that of the 18th Brumaire, the sack of Rome by Bourbon, or the destruction of Jerusalem—where is the psychologist or the historian who would be able to determine what were the thoughts which preceded or followed them in the minds of Bonaparte, of Charles V., and of Titus? Ours is an immense responsibility. To discharge it in part we will report words, phrases, and even discourses of the Orbajosan emperor himself; and in this way every one will be able to form the opinion which may seem to him most correct.
It is beyond a doubt that Cristobal Ramos left his house just after dark, crossed the Calle del Condestable, and, seeing three countrymen mounted on powerful mules coming toward him, asked them where they were going, to which they answered that they were going to Senora Dona Perfecta's house to take her some of the first fruits of their gardens and a part of the rent that had fallen due. They were Senor Paso Largo, a young man named Frasquito Gonzales, and a third, a man of medium stature and robust make, who was called Vejarruco, although his real name was Jose Esteban Romero. Caballuco turned back, tempted by the agreeable society of these persons, who were old and intimate friends of his, and accompanied them to Dona Perfecta's house. This took place, according to the most reliable accounts, at nightfall, and two days after the day on which Dona Perfecta and Pinzon held the conversation which those who have read the preceding chapter will have seen recorded there. The great Ramos stopped for a moment to give Librada certain messages of trifling importance, which a neighbor had confided to his good memory, and when he entered the dining-room he found the three before-mentioned countrymen and Senor Licurgo, who by a singular coincidence was also there, conversing about domestic matters and the crops. The Senora was in a detestable humor; she found fault with every thing, and scolded them harshly for the drought of the heavens and the barrenness of the earth, phenomena for which they, poor men! were in no wise to blame. The Penitentiary was also present. When Caballuco entered, the good canon saluted him affectionately and motioned him to a seat beside himself.
"Here is the individual," said the mistress of the house disdainfully. "It seems impossible that a man of such little account should be so much talked about. Tell me, Caballuco, is it true that one of the soldiers slapped you on the face this morning?"
"Me! me!" said the Centaur, rising indignantly, as if he had received the grossest insult.
"That is what they say," said Dona Perfecta. "Is it not true? I believed it; for any one who thinks so little of himself—they might spit in your face and you would think yourself honored with the saliva of the soldiers."
"Senora!" vociferated Ramos with energy, "saving the respect which I owe you, who are my mother, my mistress, my queen—saving the respect, I say, which I owe to the person who has given me all that I possess—saving the respect—"
"Well? One would think you were going to say something."
"I say then, that saving the respect, that about the slap is a slander," he ended, expressing himself with extraordinary difficulty. "My affairs are in every one's mouth—whether I come in or whether I go out, where I am going and where I have come from—and why? All because they want to make me a tool to raise the country. Pedro is contented in his own house, ladies and gentlemen. The troops have come? Bad! but what are we going to do about it? The alcalde and the secretary and the judge have been removed from office? Very bad! I wish the very stones of Orbajosa might rise up against them; but I have given my word to the governor, and up to the present—-"
He scratched his head, gathered his gloomy brows in a frown, and with ever-increasing difficulty of speech continued:
"I may be brutal, disagreeable, ignorant, quarrelsome, obstinate, and every thing else you choose, but in honor I yield to no one."
"What a pity of the Cid Campeador!" said Dona Perfecta contemptuously. "Don't you agree with me, Senor Penitentiary, that there is not a single man left in Orbajosa who has any shame in him?"
"That is a serious view to take of the case," responded the capitular, without looking at his friend, or removing from his chin the hand on which he rested his thoughtful face; "but I think this neighborhood has accepted with excessive submission the heavy yoke of militarism."
Licurgo and the three countrymen laughed boisterously.
"When the soldiers and the new authorities," said Dona Perfecta, "have taken from us our last real, when the town has been disgraced, we will send all the valiant men of Orbajosa in a glass case to Madrid to be put in the museum there or exhibited in the streets."
"Long life to the mistress!" cried the man called Vejarruco demonstratively. "What she says is like gold. It won't be said on my account that there are no brave men here, for if I am not with the Aceros it is only because I have a wife and three children, and if any thing was to happen—if it wasn't for that—"
"But haven't you given your word to the governor, too?" said Dona Perfecta.
"To the governor?" cried the man named Frasquito Gonzalez. "There is not in the whole country a scoundrel who better deserves a bullet. Governor and Government, they are all of a piece. Last Sunday the priest said so many rousing things in his sermon about the heresies and the profanities of the people of Madrid—oh! it was worth while hearing him! Finally, he shouted out in the pulpit that religion had no longer any defenders."
"Here is the great Cristobal Ramos!" said Dona Perfecta, clapping the Centaur on the back. "He mounts his horse and rides about in the Plaza and up and down the high-road to attract the attention of the soldiers; when they see him they are terrified at the fierce appearance of the hero, and they all run away, half-dead with fright."
Dona Perfecta ended with an exaggerated laugh, which the profound silence of her hearers made still more irritating. Caballuco was pale.
"Senor Paso Largo," continued the lady, becoming serious, "when you go home to-night, send me your son Bartolome to stay here. I need to have brave people in the house; and even with that it may very well happen that, some fine morning, my daughter and myself will be found murdered in our beds."
"Senora!" exclaimed every one.
"Senora!" cried Caballuco, rising to his feet, "is that a jest, or what is it?"
"Senor Vejarruco, Senor Paso Largo," continued Dona Perfecta, without looking at the bravo of the place, "I am not safe in my own house. No one in Orbajosa is, and least of all, I. I live with my heart in my mouth. I cannot close my eyes in the whole night."
"But who, who would dare——"
"Come," exclaimed Licurgo with fire, "I, old and sick as I am, would be capable of fighting the whole Spanish army if a hair of the mistress' head should be touched!"
"Senor Caballuco," said Frasquito Gonzalez, "will be enough and more than enough."
"Oh, no," responded Dona Perfecta, with cruel sarcasm, "don't you see that Ramos has given his word to the governor?"
Caballuco sat down again, and, crossing one leg over the other, clasped his hands on them.
"A coward will be enough for me," continued the mistress of the house implacably, "provided he has not given his word to any one. Perhaps I may come to see my house assaulted, my darling daughter torn from my arms, myself trampled under foot and insulted in the vilest manner——"
She was unable to continue. Her voice died away in her throat, and she burst into tears.
"Senora, for Heaven's sake calm yourself! Come, there is no cause yet!" said Don Inocencio hastily, and manifesting the greatest distress in his voice and his countenance. "Besides, we must have a little resignation and bear patiently the calamities which God sends us."
"But who, senora, who would dare to commit such outrages?" asked one of the four countrymen. "Orbajosa would rise as one man to defend the mistress."
"But who, who would do it?" they all repeated.
"There, don't trouble yourselves asking useless questions," said the Penitentiary officiously. "You may go."
"No, no, let them stay," said Dona Perfecta quickly, drying her tears. "The company of my loyal servants is a great consolation to me."
"May my race be accursed!" said Uncle Licurgo, striking his knee with his clenched hand, "if all this mess is not the work of the mistress' own nephew."
"Of Don Juan Rey's son?"
"From the moment I first set eyes on him at the station at Villahorrenda, and he spoke to me with his honeyed voice and his mincing manners," declared Licurgo, "I thought him a great—I will not say what, through respect for the mistress. But I knew him—I put my mark upon him from that moment, and I make no mistakes. A thread shows what the ball is, as the saying goes; a sample tells what the cloth is, and a claw what the lion is."
"Let no one speak ill of that unhappy young man in my presence," said Senora de Polentinos severely. "No matter how great his faults may be, charity forbids our speaking of them and giving them publicity."
"But charity," said Don Inocencio, with some energy, "does not forbid us protecting ourselves against the wicked, and that is what the question is. Since character and courage have sunk so low in unhappy Orbajosa; since our town appears disposed to hold up its face to be spat upon by half a dozen soldiers and a corporal, let us find protection in union among ourselves."
"I will protect myself in whatever way I can," said Dona Perfecta resignedly, clasping her hands. "God's will be done!"
"Such a stir about nothing! By the Lord! In this house they are all afraid of their shadows," exclaimed Caballuco, half seriously, half jestingly. "One would think this Don Pepito was a legion of devils. Don't be frightened, senora. My little nephew Juan, who is thirteen, will guard the house, and we shall see, nephew for nephew, which is the best man."
"We all know already what your boasting and bragging signify," replied Dona Perfecta. "Poor Ramos! You want to pretend to be very brave when we have already had proof that you are not worth any thing."
Ramos turned slightly pale, while he fixed on Dona Perfecta a strange look in which terror and respect were blended.
"Yes, man; don't look at me in that way. You know already that I am not afraid of bugaboos. Do you want me to speak plainly to you now? Well, you are a coward."
Ramos, moving about restlessly in his chair, like one who is troubled with the itch, seemed greatly disturbed. His nostrils expelled and drew in the air, like those of a horse. Within that massive frame a storm of rage and fury, roaring and destroying, struggled to escape. After stammering a few words and muttering others under his breath, he rose to his feet and bellowed:
"I will cut off the head of Senor Rey!"
"What folly! You are as brutal as you are cowardly," said Dona Perfecta, turning pale. "Why do you talk about killing? I want no one killed, much less my nephew—a person whom I love, in spite of his wickedness."
"A homicide! What an atrocity!" exclaimed Don Inocencio, scandalized. "The man is mad!"
"To kill! The very idea of killing a man horrifies me, Caballuco," said Dona Perfecta, closing her mild eyes. "Poor man! Ever since you have been wanting to show your bravery, you have been howling like a ravening wolf. Go away, Ramos; you terrify me."
"Doesn't the mistress say she is afraid? Doesn't she say that they will attack the house; that they will carry off the young lady?"
"Yes, I fear so."
"And one man is going to do that," said Ramos contemptuously, sitting down again, "Don Pepe Poquita Cosa, with his mathematics, is going to do that. I did wrong in saying I would slit his throat. A doll of that kind one takes by the ear and ducks in the river."
"Yes, laugh now, you fool! It is not my nephew alone who is going to commit the outrages you have mentioned and which I fear; if it were he alone I should not fear him. I would tell Librada to stand at the door with a broom—and that would be sufficient. It is not he alone, no!"
"Pretend you don't understand! Don't you know that my nephew and the brigadier who commands that accursed troop have been confabulating?"
"Confabulating!" repeated Caballuco, as if puzzled by the word.
"That they are bosom friends," said Licurgo. "Confabulate means to be like bosom friends. I had my suspicions already of what the mistress says."
"It all amounts to this—that the brigadier and the officers are hand and glove with Don Jose, and what he wants those brave soldiers want; and those brave soldiers will commit all kinds of outrages and atrocities, because that is their trade."
"And we have no alcalde to protect us."
"Nor governor. That is to say that we are at the mercy of that infamous rabble."
"Yesterday," said Vejarruco, "some soldiers enticed away Uncle Julian's youngest daughter, and the poor thing was afraid to go back home; they found her standing barefooted beside the old fountain, crying and picking up the pieces of her broken jar."
"Poor Don Gregorio Palomeque, the notary of Naharilla Alta!" said Frasquito. "Those rascals robbed him of all the money he had in his house. And all the brigadier said, when he was told about it, was it was a lie."
"Tyrants! greater tyrants were never born," said the other. "When I say that it is through punctilio that I am not with the Aceros!"
"And what news is there of Francisco Acero?" asked Dona Perfecta gently. "I should be sorry if any mischance were to happen to him. Tell me, Don Inocencio, was not Francisco Acero born in Orbajosa?"
"No; he and his brother are from Villajuan."
"I am sorry for it, for Orbajosa's sake," said Dona Perfecta. "This poor city has fallen into misfortune. Do you know if Francisco Acero gave his word to the governor not to trouble the poor soldiers in their abductions, in their impious deeds, in their sacrilegious acts, in their villanies?"
Caballuco sprang from his chair. He felt himself now not stung, but cut to the quick by a cruel stroke, like that of a sabre. With his face burning and his eyes flashing fire he cried:
"I gave my word to the governor because the governor told me that they had come for a good purpose."
"Barbarian, don't shout! Speak like other people, and we will listen to you."
"I promised that neither I nor any of my friends would raise guerillas in the neighborhood of Orbajosa. To those who wanted to take up arms because they were itching to fight I said: 'Go to the Aceros, for here we won't stir.' But I have a good many honest men, yes, senora; and true men, yes, senora; and valiant men, yes, senora; scattered about in the hamlets and villages and in the suburbs and the mountains, each in his own house, eh? And so soon as I say a quarter of a word to them, eh? they will be taking down their guns, eh? and setting out on horseback or on foot, for whatever place I tell them. And don't keep harping on words, for if I gave my word it was because I don't wish to fight; and if I want guerillas there will be guerillas; and if I don't there won't, for I am who I am, the same man that I always was, as every one knows very well. And I say again don't keep harping on words, eh? and don't let people say one thing to me when they mean another, eh? and if people want me to fight, let them say so plainly, eh? for that is what God has given us tongues for, to say this thing or that. The mistress knows very well who I am, as I know that I owe to her the shirt on my back, and the bread I eat to-day, and the first pea I sucked after I was weaned, and the coffin in which my father was buried when he died, and the medicines and the doctor that cured me when I was sick; and the mistress knows very well that if she says to me, 'Caballuco, break your head,' I will go there to the corner and dash it against the wall; the mistress knows very well that if she tells me now that it is day, although I see that it is night, I will believe that I am mistaken, and that it is broad day; the mistress knows very well that she and her interests are for me before my own life, and that if a mosquito stings her in my presence, I pardon it, because it is a mosquito; the mistress knows very well that she is dearer to me than all there is besides under the sun. To a man of heart like me one says, 'Caballuco, you stupid fellow, do this or do that.' And let there be an end to sarcasms, and beating about the bush, and preaching one thing and meaning another, and a stab here and a pinch there."
"There, man, calm yourself," said Dona Perfecta kindly. "You have worked yourself into a heat like those republican orators who came here to preach free religion, free love, and I don't know how many other free things. Let them bring you a glass of water."
Caballuco, twisting his handkerchief into a ball, wiped with it his broad forehead and his neck, which were bathed in perspiration. A glass of water was brought to him and the worthy canon, with a humility that was in perfect keeping with his sacerdotal character, took it from the servant's hand to give it to him himself, and held the plate while he drank. Caballuco gulped down the water noisily.
"Now bring another glass for me, Senora Librada," said Don Inocencio. "I have a little fire inside me too."
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