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"Resignation, resignation!" repeated Don Inocencio.
"Resignation, resignation!" repeated his niece, drying her tears. "If my dear son is doomed to be always a beggar, well, then, be it so. Lawsuits are becoming scarce; the day will soon come when the practice of the law will be the same as nothing. What is the use of all his talent? What is the use of his tiring his brain with so much study? Ah! We are poor. A day will come, Senor Don Inocencio, when my poor boy will not have a pillow on which to lay his head."
"Man! can you deny it? Tell me, then, what inheritance are you going to leave him when you close your eyes on this world? A couple of rooms, half a dozen big books, poverty, and nothing more. What times are before us, uncle; what times! My poor boy is growing very delicate in his health, and he won't be able to work—it makes him dizzy now to read a book; he gets a headache and nausea whenever he works at night! He will have to beg a paltry situation; I shall have to take in sewing, and who knows, who knows but we may have to beg our bread!"
"Oh, I know very well what I am talking about! Fine times before us!" added the excellent woman, forcing still more the lachrymose note in her diatribe. "My God! What is going to become of us? Ah, it is only a mother's heart that can feel these things! Only a mother is capable of suffering so much anxiety about a son's welfare. How should you understand it? No; it is one thing to have children and to suffer anxiety on their account and another to sing the gori gori in the cathedral and to teach Latin in the institute. Of great use is it for my son to be your nephew and to have taken so many honors and to be the pride and ornament of Orbajosa. He will die of starvation, for we already know what law brings; or else he will have to ask the deputies for a situation in Havana, where the yellow fever will kill him."
"No, I am not grieving, I am silent now; I won't annoy you any more. I am very troublesome, always crying and sighing; and I am not to be endured because I am a fond mother and I will look out for the good of my beloved son. I will die, yes, I will die in silence, and stifle my grief. I will swallow my tears, in order not to annoy his reverence the canon. But my idolized son will comprehend me and he won't put his hands to his ears as you are doing now. Woe is me! Poor Jacinto knows that I would die for him, and that I would purchase his happiness at the sacrifice of my life. Darling child of my soul! To be so deserving and to be forever doomed to mediocrity, to a humble station, for—don't get indignant, uncle—no matter what airs we put on, you will always be the son of Uncle Tinieblas, the sacristan of San Bernardo, and I shall never be any thing more than the daughter of Ildefonso Tinieblas, your brother, who used to sell crockery, and my son will be the grandson of the Tinieblas—for obscure we were born, and we shall never emerge from our obscurity, nor own a piece of land of which we can say, 'This is mine'; nor shall I ever plunge my arms up to the elbows in a sack of wheat threshed and winnowed on our own threshing-floor—all because of your cowardice, your folly, your soft-heartedness."
The canon's voice rose higher every time he repeated this phrase, and, with his hands to his ears, he shook his head from side to side with a look of mingled grief and desperation. The shrill complaint of Maria Remedios grew constantly shriller, and pierced the brain of the unhappy and now dazed priest like an arrow. But all at once the woman's face became transformed; her plaintive wail was changed to a hard, shrill scream; she turned pale, her lips trembled, she clenched her hands, a few locks of her disordered hair fell over her forehead, her eyes glittered, dried by the heat of the anger that glowed in her breast; she rose from her seat and, not like a woman, but like a harpy, cried:
"I am going away from here! I am going away from here with my son! We will go to Madrid; I don't want my son to fret himself to death in this miserable town! I am tired now of seeing that my son, under the protection of the cassock, neither is nor ever will be any thing. Do you hear, my reverend uncle? My son and I are going away! You will never see us again—never!"
Don Inocencio had clasped his hands and was receiving the thunderbolts of his niece's wrath with the consternation of a criminal whom the presence of the executioner has deprived of his last hope.
"In Heaven's name, Remedios," he murmured, in a pained voice; "in the name of the Holy Virgin——"
These fits of range of his niece, who was usually so meek, were as violent as they were rare, and five or six years would sometimes pass without Don Inocencio seeing Remedios transformed into a fury.
"I am a mother! I am a mother! and since no one else will look out for my son, I will look out for him myself!" roared the improvised lioness.
"In the name of the Virgin, niece, don't let your passion get the best of you! Remember that you are committing a sin. Let us say the Lord's Prayer and an Ave Maria, and you will see that this will pass away."
As he said this the Penitentiary trembled, and the perspiration stood on his forehead. Poor dove in the talons of the vulture! The furious woman completed his discomfiture with these words:
"You are good for nothing; you are a poltroon! My son and I will go away from this place forever, forever! I will get a position for my son, I will find him a good position, do you understand? Just as I would be willing to sweep the streets with my tongue if I could gain a living for him in no other way, so I will move heaven and earth to find a position for my boy in order that he may rise in the world and be rich, and a person of consequence, and a gentleman, and a lord and great, and all that there is to be—all, all!"
"Heaven protect me!" cried Don Inocencio, sinking into a chair and letting his head fall on his breast.
There was a pause during which the agitated breathing of the furious woman could be heard.
"Niece," said Don Inocencio at last, "you have shortened my life by ten years; you have set my blood on fire; you have put me beside myself. God give me the calmness that I need to bear with you! Lord, patience—patience is what I ask. And you, niece, do me the favor to sigh and cry to your heart's content for the next ten years; for your confounded mania of sniveling, greatly as it annoys me, is preferable to these mad fits of rage. If I did not know that you are good at heart——Well, for one who confessed and received communion this morning you are behaving—"
"Yes, but you are the cause of it—you!"
"Because in the matter of Rosario and Jacinto I say to you, resignation?"
"Because when every thing is going on well you turn back and allow Senor de Rey to get possession of Rosario."
"And how am I going to prevent it? Dona Perfecta is right in saying that you have an understanding of brick. Do you want me to go about the town with a sword, and in the twinkling of an eye to make mincemeat of the whole regiment, and then confront Rey and say to him, 'Leave the girl in peace or I will cut your throat'?"
"No, but when I advised the senora to give her nephew a fright, you opposed my advice, instead of supporting it."
"You are crazy with your talk about a fright."
"Because when the dog is dead the madness is at an end."
"I cannot advise what you call a fright, and what might be a terrible thing."
"Yes; because I am a cut-throat, am I not, uncle?"
"You know that practical jokes are vulgar. Besides, do you suppose that man would allow himself to be insulted? And his friends?"
"At night he goes out alone."
"How do you know that?"
"I know every thing; he does not take a step that I am not aware of; do you understand? The widow De Cuzco keeps me informed of every thing."
"There, don't set me crazy. And who is going to give him that fright? Let us hear."
"So that he is disposed—"
"No, but he will be if you command him."
"Come, niece, leave me in peace. I cannot command such an atrocity. A fright! And what is that? Have you spoken to him already?"
"Yes, senor; but he paid no attention to me, or rather he refused. There are only two people in Orbajosa who can make him do what they wish by a simple order—you and Dona Perfecta."
"Let Dona Perfecta order him to do it if she wishes, then. I will never advise the employment of violent and brutal measures. Will you believe that when Caballuco and some of his followers were talking of rising up in arms they could not draw a single word from me inciting them to bloodshed. No, not that. If Dona Perfecta wishes to do it—"
"She will not do it, either. I talked with her for two hours this afternoon and she said that she would preach war, and help it by every means in her power; but that she would not bid one man stab another in the back. She would be right in opposing it if anything serious were intended, but I don't want any wounds; all I want is to give him a fright."
"Well, if Dona Perfecta doesn't want to order a fright to be given to the engineer, I don't either, do you understand? My conscience is before every thing."
"Very well," returned his niece. "Tell Caballuco to come with me to-night—that is all you need say to him."
"Are you going out to-night?"
"Yes, senor, I am going out. Why, didn't I go out last night too?"
"Last night? I didn't know it; if I had known it I should have been angry; yes, senora."
"All you have to say to Caballuco is this: 'My dear Ramos, I will be greatly obliged to you if you will accompany my niece on an errand which she has to do to-night, and if you will protect her, if she should chance to be in any danger.'"
"I can do that. To accompany you, to protect you. Ah, rogue! you want to deceive me and make me your accomplice in some piece of villany."
"Of course—what do you suppose?" said Maria Remedios ironically. "Between Ramos and me we are going to slaughter a great many people to-night."
"Don't jest! I tell you again that I will not advise Ramos to do any thing that has the appearance of evil—I think he is outside."
A noise at the street-door was heard, then the voice of Caballuco speaking to the servant, and a little later the hero of Orbajosa entered the room.
"What is the news? Give us the news, Senor Ramos," said the priest. "Come! If you don't give us some hope in exchange for your supper and our hospitality——What is going on in Villahorrenda?"
"Something," answered the bravo, seating himself with signs of fatigue. "You shall soon see whether we are good for anything or not."
Like all persons who wish to make themselves appear important, Caballuco made a show of great reserve.
"To-night, my friend, you shall take with you, if you wish, the money they have given me for—"
"There is good need of it. If the soldiers should get scent of it, however, they won't let me pass," said Ramos, with a brutal laugh.
"Hold your tongue, man. We know already that you pass whenever you please. Why, that would be a pretty thing! The soldiers are not strait-laced gentry, and if they should become troublesome, with a couple of dollars, eh? Come, I see that you are not badly armed. All you want now is an eight-pounder. Pistols, eh? And a dagger too."
"For any thing that might happen," said Caballuco, taking the weapon from his belt and displaying its horrible blade.
"In the name of God and of the Virgin!" exclaimed Maria Remedios, closing her eyes and turning her face in terror, "put away that thing. The very sight of it terrifies me."
"If you won't take it ill of me," said Ramos, shutting the weapon, "let us have supper."
Maria Remedios prepared every thing quickly, in order that the hero might not become impatient.
"Listen to me a moment, Senor Ramos," said Don Inocencio to his guest, when they had sat down to supper. "Have you a great deal to do to-night?"
"Something there is to be done," responded the bravo. "This is the last night I shall come to Orbajosa—the last. I have to look up some boys who remained in the town, and we are going to see how we can get possession of the saltpetre and the sulphur that are in the house of Cirujeda."
"I asked you," said the curate amiably, filling his friend's plate, "because my niece wishes you to accompany her a short distance. She has some business or other to attend to, and it is a little late to be out alone."
"Is she going to Dona Perfecta's?" asked Ramos. "I was there a few moments ago, but I did not want to make any delay."
"How is the senora?"
"A little frightened. To-night I took away the six young men I had in the house."
"Why! don't you think they will be wanted there?" said Remedios, with alarm.
"They are wanted more in Villahorrenda. Brave men chafe at being kept in the house; is it not so, Senor Canon?"
"Senor Ramos, that house ought not to be left unprotected," said the Penitentiary.
"The servants are enough, and more than enough. But do you suppose, Senor Don Inocencio, that the brigadier employs himself in attacking the people's houses?"
"Yes, but you know very well that that diabolical engineer——"
"For that—there are not wanting brooms in the house," said Cristobal jovially. "For in the end, there will be no help for it but to marry them. After what has passed——"
"Senor Ramos," said Remedios, with sudden anger, "I imagine that all you know about marrying people is very little."
"I say that because a little while ago, when I was at the house, the mother and daughter seemed to be having a sort of reconciliation. Dona Perfecta was kissing Rosarito over and over again, and there was no end to their caresses and endearments."
"Reconciliation! With all these preparations for the war you have lost your senses. But, finally, are you coming with me or not?"
"It is not to Dona Perfecta's she wants to go," said the priest, "but to the hotel of the widow De Cuzco. She was saying that she does not dare to go alone, because she is afraid of being insulted."
"It is easily understood. By that infernal engineer. Last night my niece met him there, and she gave him some plain talk; and for that reason she is not altogether easy in her mind to-night. The young fellow is revengeful and insolent."
"I don't know whether I can go," said Caballuco. "As I am in hiding now I cannot measure my strength against Don Jose Poquita Cosa. If I were not as I am—with half my face hidden, and the other half uncovered—I would have broken his back for him already twenty times over. But what happens if I attack him? He discovers who I am, he falls upon me with the soldiers, and good-bye to Caballuco. As for giving him a treacherous blow, that is something I couldn't do; nor would Dona Perfecta consent to it, either. For a stab in the dark Cristobal Ramos is not the man."
"But are you crazy, man? What are you thinking about?" said the Penitentiary, with unmistakable signs of astonishment. "Not even in thought would I advise you to do an injury to that gentleman. I would cut my tongue out before I would advise such a piece of villany. The wicked will fall, it is true; but it is God who will fix the moment, not I. And the question is not to give a beating, either. I would rather receive a hundred blows myself than advise the administration of such a medicine to any Christian. One thing only will I say to you," he ended, looking at the bravo over his spectacles, "and that is, that as my niece is going there; and as it is probable, very probable, is it not, Remedios? that she may have to say a few plain words to that man, I recommend you not to leave her unprotected, in case she should be insulted."
"I have something to do to-night," answered Caballuco, laconically and dryly.
"You hear what he says, Remedios. Leave your business for to-morrow."
"I can't do that. I will go alone."
"No, you shall not go alone, niece. Now let us hear no more about the matter. Senor Ramos has something to do, and he cannot accompany you. Fancy if you were to be insulted by that rude man!"
"Insulted! A lady insulted by that fellow!" exclaimed Caballuco. "Come that must not be."
"If you had not something to do—bah! I should be quite easy in my mind, then."
"I have something to do," said the Centaur, rising from the table, "but if you wish it——"
There was a pause. The Penitentiary had closed his eyes and was meditating.
"I wish it, Senor Ramos," he said at last.
"There is no more to be said then. Let us go, Senora Dona Maria."
"Now, my dear niece," said Don Inocencio, half seriously, half jestingly, "since we have finished supper bring me the basin."
He gave his niece a penetrating glance, and accompanying it with the corresponding action, pronounced these words:
"I wash my hands of the matter."
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