"I WAS spending the summer at Nazaret," said my friend Orduna, "a little fishermen's town near Valencia. The women went to the city to sell the fish, the men sailed about in their boats with triangular sails, or tugged at their nets on the beach; we summer vacationists spent the day sleeping and the night at the doors of our houses, contemplating the phosphorescence of the waves or slapping ourselves here and there whenever we heard the buzz of a mosquito,--that scourge of our resting hours.
"The doctor, a hardy and genial old fellow, would come and sit down under the bower before my door, and we'd spend the night together, with a jar or a watermelon at our side, speaking of his patients, folks of land or sea, credulous, rough and insolent in their manners, given over to fishing or to the cultivation of their fields. At times we laughed as he recalled the illness of Visanteta, the daughter of _la Soberana_, an old fishmonger who justified her nickname of _the Queen_ by her bulk and her stature, as well as by the arrogance with which she treated her market companions, imposing her will upon them by right of might.... The belle of the place was this Visanteta: tiny, malicious, with a clever tongue, and no other good looks than that of youthful health; but she had a pair of penetrating eyes and a trick of pretending timidity, weakness and interest, which simply turned the heads of the village youths. Her sweetheart was _Carafosca_, a brave fisherman who was capable of sailing on a stick of wood. On the sea he was admired by all for his audacity; on land he filled everybody with fear by his provoking silence and the facility with which he whipped out his aggressive sailor's knife. Ugly, burly and always ready for a fight, like the huge creatures that from time to time showed up in the waters of Nazaret devouring all the fish, he would walk to church on Sunday afternoons at his sweetheart's side, and every time the maiden raised her head to speak to him, amidst the simple talk and lisping of a delicate, pampered child, _Carafosca_ would cast a challenging look about him with his squinting eyes, as if defying all the folk of the fields, the beach and the sea to take his Visanteta away from him.
"One day the most astounding news was bruited about Nazaret. The daughter of _la Soberana_ had an animal inside of her. Her abdomen was swelling; the slow deformation revealed itself through her underskirts and her dress; her face lost color, and the fact that she had swooned several times, vomiting painfully, upset the entire cabin and caused her mother to burst into desperate lamentations and to run in terror for help. Many of her neighbors smiled when they heard of this illness. Let them tell it to _Carafosca_!... But the incredulous ones ceased their malicious talk and their suspicions when they saw how sad and desperate _Carafosca_ became at his sweetheart's illness, praying for her recovery with all the fervor of a simple soul, even going so far as to enter the little village church,--he, who had always been a pagan, a blasphemer of God and the saints.
"Yes, it was a strange and horrible sickness. The people, in their predisposition to believe in all sorts of extraordinary and rare afflictions, were certain that they knew what this was. Visanteta had a toad in her stomach. She had drunk from a certain spot of the near-by river, and the wicked animal, small and almost unnoticeable, had gone down into her stomach, growing fast. The good neighbors, trembling with stupefaction, flocked to _la Soberana's_ cabin to examine the girl. All, with a certain solemnity, felt the swelling abdomen, seeking in its tightened surface the outlines of the hidden creature. Some of them, older and more experienced than the rest, laughed with a triumphant expression. There it was, right under their hand. They could feel it stirring, moving about.... Yes, it was moving! And after grave deliberation, they agreed upon remedies to expel the unwelcome guest. They gave the girl spoonfuls of rosemary honey, so that the wicked creature inside should start to eat it gluttonously, and when he was most preoccupied in his joyous meal, whiz!--an inundation of onion juice and vinegar that would bring him out at full gallop. At the same time they applied to her stomach miraculous plasters, so that the toad, left without a moment's rest, should escape in terror; there were rags soaked in brandy and saturated with incense; tangles of hemp dipped in the calking of the ships; mountain herbs; simple bits of paper with numbers, crosses and Solomon's seal upon them, sold by the miracle-worker of the city. Visanteta thought that all these remedies that were being thrust down her throat would be the death of her. She shuddered with the chills of nausea, she writhed in horrible contortions as if she were about to expel her very entrails, but the odious toad did not deign to show even one of his legs, and _la Soberana_ cried to heaven. Ah, her daughter!... Those remedies would never succeed in casting out the wretched animal; it was better to let it alone, and not torture the poor girl; rather give it a great deal to eat, so that it wouldn't feed upon the strength of Visanteta who was glowing paler and weaker every day.
"And as _la Soberana_ was poor, all her friends, moved by the compassionate solidarity of the common people, devoted themselves to the feeding of Visanteta so that the toad should do her no harm. The fisherwomen, upon returning from the square brought her cakes that were purchased in city establishments, that only the upper class patronized; on the beach, when the catch was sorted, they laid aside for her a dainty morsel that would serve for a succulent soup; the neighbors, who happened to be cooking in their pots over the fire would take out a cupful of the best of the broth, carrying it slowly so that it shouldn't spill, and bring it to _la Soberana's_ cabin; cups of chocolate arrived one after the other every afternoon.
"Visanteta rebelled against this excessive kindness. She couldn't swallow another drop! She was full! But her mother stuck out her hairy nose with an imperious expression. 'I tell you to eat!' She must remember what she had inside of her.... And she began to feel a faint, indefinable affection for that mysterious creature, lodged in the entrails of her daughter. She pictured it to herself; she could see it; it was her pride. Thanks to it, the whole town had its eyes upon the cabin and the trail of visitors was unending, and _la Soberana_ never passed a woman on her way without being stopped and asked for news.
"Only once had they summoned the doctor, seeing him pass by the door; but not that they really wished him, or had any faith in him. What could that helpless man do against such a tenacious animal!... And upon hearing that, not content with the explanations of the mother and the daughter and his own audacious tapping around her clothes, he recommended an internal examination, the proud mother almost showed him the door. The impudent wretch! Not in a hurry was he going to have the pleasure of seeing her daughter so intimately! The poor thing, so good and so modest, who blushed merely at the thought of such proposals!...
"On Sunday afternoons Visanteta went to church, figuring at the head of the daughters of Mary. Her voluminous abdomen was eyed with admiration by the girls. They all asked breathlessly after the toad, and Visanteta replied wearily. It didn't bother her so much now. It had grown very much because she ate so well; sometimes it moved about, but it didn't hurt as it used to. One after the other the maidens would place their hands upon the afflicted one and feel the movements of the invisible creature, admiring as they did so the superiority of their friend. The curate, a blessed chap of pious simplicity, pretended not to notice the feminine curiosity, and thought with awe of the things done by God to put His creatures to the test. Afterwards, when the afternoon drew to a close, and the choir sang in gentle voice the praises of Our Lady of the Sea, each of the virgins would fall to thinking of that mysterious beast, praying fervently that poor Visanteta be delivered of it as soon as possible.
"_Carafosca_, too, enjoyed a certain notoriety because of his sweetheart's affliction. The women accosted him, the old fishermen stopped him to inquire about the animal that was torturing his girl. 'The poor thing! The poor thing!' he would groan, in accents of amorous commiseration. He said no more; but his eyes revealed a vehement desire to take over as soon as possible Visanteta and her toad, since the latter inspired a certain affection in him because of its connection with her.
"One night, when the doctor was at my door, a woman came in search of him, panting with dramatic horror. _La Soberana's_ daughter was very sick; he must run to her rescue. The doctor shrugged his shoulders 'Ah, yes! The toad!' And he didn't seem at all anxious to stir. Then came another woman, more agitated than the first. Poor Visanteta! She was dying! Her shrieks could be heard all over the street. The wicked beast was devouring her entrails....
"I followed the doctor, attracted by the curiosity that had the whole town in a commotion. When we came to _la Soberana's_ cabin we had to force our way through a compact group of women who obstructed the doorway, crowding into the house. A rending shriek, a rasping wail came from the innermost part of the dwelling, rising above the heads of the curious or terrified women. The hoarse voice of _la Soberana_ answered with entreating accents. Her daughter! Ah, Lord, her poor daughter!...
"The arrival of the physician was received by a chorus of demands on the part of the old women. Poor Visanteta was writhing furiously, unable to bear such pain; her eyes bulged from their sockets and her features were distorted. She must be operated upon; her entrails must be opened and the green, slippery demon that was eating her alive must be expelled.
"The doctor proceeded upon his task, without paying any attention to the advice showered upon him, and before I could reach his side his voice resounded through the sudden silence, with ill-humored brusqueness:
"'But good Lord, the only trouble with this girl is that she's going to...!'
"Before he could finish, all could guess from the harshness of his voice what he was about to say. The group of women yielded before _la Soberana's_ thrusts even as the waves of the sea under the belly of a whale. She stuck out her big hands and her threatening nails, mumbling insults and looking at the doctor with murder in her eyes. Bandit! Drunkard! Out of her house!...It was the people's fault, for supporting such an infidel. She'd eat him up! Let them make way for her!... And she struggled violently with her friends, fighting to free herself and scratch out the doctor's eyes. To her vindictive cries were joined the weak bleating of Visanteta, protesting with the breath that was left her between her groans of pain. It was a lie! Let that wicked man be gone! What a nasty mouth he had! It was all a lie!...
"But the doctor went hither and thither, asking for water, for bandages, snappy and imperious in his commands, paying no attention whatsoever to the threats of the mother or the cries of the daughter, which were becoming louder and more heart-rending than ever. Suddenly she roared as if she were being slaughtered, and there was a bustle of curiosity around the physician, whom I couldn't see. 'It's a lie! A lie! Evil-tongued wretch! Slanderer!'... But the protestations of Visanteta were no longer unaccompanied. To her voice of an innocent victim begging justice from heaven was added the cry of a pair of lungs that were breathing the air for the first time.
"And now the friends of _la Soberana_ had to restrain her from falling upon her daughter. She would kill her! The bitch! Whose child was that?... And terrified by the threats of her mother, the sick woman, who was still sobbing 'It's a lie! A lie!' at last spoke. It was a young fellow of the _huerta_ whom she had never seen again... an indiscretion committed one evening... she no longer remembered. No, she could not remember!... And she insisted upon this forgetfulness as if it were an incontrovertible excuse.
"The people now saw through it all. The women were impatient to spread the news. As we left, _la Soberana_, humiliated and in tears, tried to kneel before the doctor and kiss his hand. 'Ay, Don Antoni!... Don Antoni!' She asked pardon for her insults; she despaired when she thought of the village comments. What they would have to suffer now!... On the following day the youths that sang as they arranged their nets would invent new verses. The song of the toad! Her life would become impossible!... But even more than this, the thought of _Carafosca_ terrified her. She knew very well what sort of brute that was. He would kill poor Visanteta the first time she appeared on the street; and she herself would meet the same fate for being her mother and not having guarded her well. 'Ay, Don Antoni!' She begged him, upon her knees, to see _Carafosca_. He, who was so good and who knew so much, could convince the fellow with his reasoning, and make him swear that he would not do the women any harm,--that he would forget them.
"The doctor received these entreaties with the same indifference as he had received the threats, and he answered sharply. He would see about it; it was a delicate affair. But once in the street, he shrugged his shoulders with resignation. 'Let's go and see that animal.'
"We pulled him out of the tavern and the three of us began to walk along the beach through the darkness. The fisherman seemed to be awed at finding himself between two persons of such importance. Don Antonio spoke to him of the indisputable superiority of men ever since the earliest days of creation; of the scorn with which women should be regarded because of their lack of seriousness; of their immense number and the ease with which we could pick another if the one we had happened to displease us... and at last, with brutal directness, told what had happened.
"_Carafosca_ hesitated, as if he had not understood the doctor's words very well. Little by little the certainty dawned upon his dense comprehension. 'By God! By God!' And he scratched himself fearfully under his cap, and brought his hands to his sash as if he were seeking his redoubtable knife.
"The physician tried to console him. He must forget Visanteta; there would be no sense or advantage in killing her. It wasn't worth while for a splendid chap like him to go to prison for slaying a worthless creature like her. The real culprit was that unknown laborer; but... and she! And how easily she... committed the indiscretion, not being able to recall anything afterwards!...
"For a long time we walked along in painful silence, with no other novelty than _Carafosca's_ scratching of his head and his sash. Suddenly he surprised us with the roar of his voice, speaking to us in Castilian, thus adding solemnity to what he said:
"'Do you want me to tell you something?... Do you want me to tell you something?'
"He looked at us with hostile eyes, as if he saw before him the unknown culprit of the _huerta_, ready to pounce upon him. It could be seen that his sluggish brain had just adopted a very firm resolution.... What was it? Let him speak.
"'Well, then,' he articulated slowly, as if we were enemies whom he desired to confound, 'I tell you... that now I love the girl more than ever.'
"In our stupefaction, at a loss for reply, we shook hands with him."