"I SIR," said _Magdalena_, the bugler of the prison, "am no saint; I've been jailed many times for robberies; some of them that really took place and others that I was simply suspected of. Compared to you, who are a gentleman, and are in prison for having written things in the papers, I'm a mere wretch.... But take my word for it, this time I'm here for good."
And raising one hand to his breast as he straightened his head with a certain pride, he added, "Petty thefts, that's all I'm not brave; I haven't shed a drop of blood."
At break of day, _Magdalena's_ bugle resounded through the spacious yard, embroidering its reveille with scales and trills. During the day, with the martial instrument hanging from his neck, or caressing it with a corner of his smock so as to wipe off the vapor with which the dampness of the prison covered it, he would go through the entire edifice,--an ancient convent in whose refectories, granaries and garrets there were crowded, in perspiring confusion, almost a thousand men.
He was the clock that governed the life and the activities of this mass of male flesh perpetually seething with hatred. He made the round of the cells to announce, with sonorous blasts, the arrival of the worthy director, or a visit from the authorities; from the progress of the sun along the white walls of the prison-yard he could tell the approach of the visiting hours,--the best part of the day,--and with his tongue stuck between his lips he would await orders impatiently, ready to burst into the joyous signal that sent the flock of prisoners scampering over the stairways in an anxious run toward the locutories, where a wretched crowd of women and children buzzed in conversation; his insatiable hunger kept him pacing back and forth in the vicinity of the old kitchen, in which the enormous stews filled the atmosphere with a nauseating odor, and he bemoaned the indifference of the chef, who was always late in giving the order for the mess-call.
Those imprisoned for crimes of blood, heroes of the dagger who had killed their man in a fierce brawl or in a dispute over a woman and who formed an aristocracy that disdained the petty thieves, looked upon the bugler as the butt for pranks with which to while away their boredom.
"Blow!" would come the command from some formidable fellow, proud of his crimes and his courage.
And _Magdalena_ would draw himself up with military rigidity, close his mouth and inflate his cheeks, momentarily expecting two blows, delivered simultaneously by both hands, to expel the air from the ruddy globe of his face. At other times these redoubtable personages tested the strength of their arms upon _Magdalena's_ pate, which was bare with the baldness of repugnant diseases, and they would howl with laughter at the damage done to their fists by the protuberances of the hard skull. The bugler lent himself to these tortures with the humility of a whipped dog, and found a certain revenge in repeating, afterwards, those words that were a solace to him:
"I'm good; I'm not a brave fellow. Petty thefts, that's all.... But as to blood, not a single drop."
Visiting time brought his wife, the notorious _Peluchona_, a valiant creature who inspired him with great fear. She was the mistress of one of the most dangerous bandits in the jail. Daily she brought that fellow food, procuring these dainties at the cost of all manner of vile labors. The bugler, upon beholding her, would leave the lucutory, fearing the arrogance of her bandit mate, who would take advantage of the occasion to humiliate him before his former companion. Many times a certain feeling of curiosity and tenderness got the better of his fear, and he would advance timidly, looking beyond the thick bars for the head of a child that came with _la Peluchona_.
"That's my son, sir," he said, humbly. "My Tonico, who no longer knows me or remembers me. They say that he doesn't resemble me at all. Perhaps he's not mine.... You can imagine, with the life his mother has always led, living near the garrisons, washing the soldiers' clothes!... But he was born in my home; I held him in my arms when he was ill, and that's a bond as close as ties of blood."
Then he would resume his timid lurking about the locutory, as if preparing one of his robberies, to see his Tonico; and when he could see him for a moment, the sight was enough to extinguish his helpless rage before the full basket of lunch that the evil woman brought to her lover.
_Magdalena's_ whole existence was summed up in two facts; he had robbed and he had travelled much. The robberies were insignificant; clothes or money snatched in the street, because he lacked courage for greater deeds. His travels had been compulsory,--always on foot, over the roads of Spain, marching in a chain gang of convicts, between the polished or white three-cornered hats that guarded the prisoners.
After having been a "pupil" among the buglers of a regiment, he had launched upon this life of continuous imprisonment, punctuated by brief periods of freedom, in which he lost his bearings, not knowing what to do with himself and wishing to return as soon as possible to jail. It was the perpetual chain, but finished link by link, as he used to say.
The police never organized a round-up of dangerous persons but what _Magdalena_ was found among them,--a timorous rat whose name the papers mentioned like that of a terrible criminal. He was always included in the trail of vagrant suspects who, without being charged with any specific crime, were sent from province to province by the authorities, in the hope that they would die of hunger along the roads, and thus he had covered the whole peninsula on foot, from Cadiz to Santander, from Valencia to La Coruña. With what enthusiasm he recalled his travels! He spoke of them as if they were joyous excursions, just like a wandering charity-student of the old _Tuna_ converting his tales into courses in picturesque geography. With hungry delight he recollected the abundant milk of Galicia, the red sausages of Extramadura, the Castilian bread, the Basque apples, the wines and ciders of all the districts he had traversed, with his luggage on his shoulder. Guards were changed every day,--some of them kind or indifferent, others ill-humored and cruel, who made all the prisoners fear a couple of shots fired beyond the ruts of the road, followed by the papers justifying the killing as having been caused by an attempt at flight. With a certain nostalgia he evoked the memory of mountains covered with snow or reddened and striped by the sun; the slow procession along the white road that was lost in the horizon, like an endless ribbon; the highlands, under the trees, in the hot noon hours; the storms that assailed them upon the highways; inundated ravines that forced them to camp out in the open; the arrival, late at night, at certain town prisons, old convenes or abandoned churches, in which every man hunted up a dry corner, protected from draughts, where he could stretch his mat; the endless journey with all the calm of a purposeless procession; the long halts in spots where life was so monotonous that the presence of a group of prisoners was an event; the urchins would come running up to the bars to speak with them, while the girls, impelled by morbid curiosity, would approach within a short distance, to hear their songs and their obscene language.
"Some mighty interesting travels, sir," continued the robber. "For those of us who had good health and didn't drop by the roadside it was the same as a strolling band of students. Now and then a drubbing, but who pays any attention to such things!... They don't have these _conductions_ now; prisoners are transported by railroad, caged up in the cars. Besides, I am held for a criminal offense, and I must live inside the walls... jailed for good."
And again he began to lament his bad luck, relating the final deed that had landed him in jail.
It was a suffocating Sunday in July; an afternoon in which the streets of Valencia seemed to be deserted, under the burning sun and a wind like a furnace blast that came from the baked plains of the interior. Everybody was at the bull-fight or at the seashore. _Magdalena_ was approached by his friend _Chamorra_, an old prison and traveling companion, who exercised a certain influence over him. That _Chamorra_ was a bad soul! A thief, but of the sort that go the limit, not recoiling before the necessity of shedding blood and with his knife always handy beside his skeleton-keys. It was a matter of cleaning out a certain house, upon which this fearful fellow had set his eye. _Magdalena_ modestly excused himself. He wasn't made for such things; he couldn't go so far. As for gliding up to a roof and pulling down the clothes that had been hung out to dry, or snatching a woman's purse with a quick pull and making off with it... all right. But to break into a house, and face the mystery of a dwelling, in which the people might be at home?...
But _Chamorra's_ threatening look inspired him with greater fear than did the anticipation of such an encounter, and he finally consented. Very well; he would go as an assistant,--to carry the spoils, but ready to flee at the slightest alarm. And he refused to accept an old jack-knife that his companion offered him. He was consistent.
"Petty thefts aplenty; but as to blood, not a single drop."
Late in the afternoon they entered the narrow vestibule of a house that had no janitor, and whose inhabitants were all away. _Chamorra_ knew his victim; a comfortably fixed artisan who must have a neat little pile saved up. He was surely at the beach with his wife or at the bull-fight. Above, the door of the apartment yielded easily, and the two companions began to work in the gloom of the shuttered windows.
_Chamorra_ forced the locks of two chiffoniers and a closet. There was silver coin, copper coin, several bank-notes rolled up at the bottom of a fan-case, the wedding-jewelry, a clock. Not a bad haul. His anxious looks wandered over the place, seeking to make off with everything that could be carried. He lamented the uselessness of _Magdalena_, who, restless with fear and with his arms hanging limp at his sides, was pacing to and fro without knowing what to do.
"Take the quilts," ordered _Chamorra_, "We're sure to get something for the wool."
And _Magdalena_, eager to finish the job as soon as possible, penetrated into the dark alcove, gropingly passing a rope underneath the quilts and the bed-sheets. Then, aided by his friend, he hurriedly made a bundle of everything, casting the voluminous burden upon his shoulders.
They left without being detected, and walked off in the direction of the outskirts of the town, towards a shanty of Arrancapinos, where _Chamorra_ had his haunt. The latter walked ahead, ready to run at the first sign of danger; _Magdalena_ followed, trotting along, almost hidden beneath the tremendous load, fearing to feel at any moment the hand of the police upon his neck.
Upon examining the proceeds of the robbery in the remote corral, _Chamorra_ exhibited the arrogance of a lion, granting his accomplice a few copper coins. This must be enough for the moment. He did this for _Magdalena's_ own good, as _Magdalena_ was such a spendthrift. Later he would give more.
Then they untied the bundle of quilts, and _Chamorra_ bent over, his hands on his hips, exploding with laughter. What a find!... What a present!
_Magdalena_ likewise burst into guffaws, for the first time that afternoon. Upon the bed-clothes lay an infant, dressed only in a little shirt, its eyes shut and its face purple from suffocation, but moving its chest with difficulty at feeling the first caress of fresh air. _Magdalena_ recalled the vague sensation he had experienced during his journey hither,--that of something alive moving inside the thick load on his back. A weak, suffocated whining pursued him in his flight.... The mother had left the little one asleep in the cool darkness of the alcove, and they, without knowing it, had carried it off together with the bed-clothes.
_Magdalena's_ frightened eyes now looked questioningly at his companion. What were they to do with the child?... But that evil soul was laughing away like a very demon.
"It's yours; I present it to you.... Eat it with potatoes."
And he went off with all the spoils. _Magdalena_ was left standing in doubt, while he cradled the child in his arms. The poor little thing!... It looked just like his own Tono, when he sang him to sleep; just like him when he was ill and leaned his little head upon his father's bosom, while the parent wept, fearing for the child's life. The same little soft, pink feet; the same downy flesh, with skin as soft as silk.... The infant had ceased to cry, looking with surprised eyes at the robber, who was caressing it like a nurse.
"Lullaby, my poor little thing! There, there, my little king... child Jesus! Look at me. I'm your uncle."
But _Magdalena_ stopped laughing, thinking of the mother, of her desperate grief when she would return to the house. The loss of her little fortune would be her least concern. The child! Where was she to find her child?... He knew what mothers were like. _Peluchona_ was the worst of women, yet he had seen even her weep and moan before her little one in danger.
He gazed toward the sun, which was beginning to sink in a majestic summer sunset. There was still time to take the infant back to the house before its parents would return. And if he should encounter them, he would lie, saying that he had found the infant in the middle of the street; he would extricate himself as well as he could. Forward; he had never felt so brave.
Carrying the infant in his arms he walked at ease through the very streets over which he had lately hastened with the anxious gait of fear. He mounted the staircase without encountering anybody. Above, the same solitude. The door was still open, the bolt forced. Within, the disordered rooms, the broken furniture, the drawers upon the floor, the overturned chairs and clothes strewn about, filled him with a sensation of terror similar to that which assails the assassin who returns to contemplate the corpse of his victim some time after the crime.
He gave a last fond kiss to the child and left it upon the bed.
"Good-bye, my pet!"
But as he approached the head of the staircase he heard footsteps, and in the rectangle of light that entered through the open door there bulked the silhouette of a corpulent man. At the same time there rang out the shrill shriek of a female voice, trembling with fright:
_Magdalena_ tried to escape, opening a passage for himself with his head lowered, like a cornered rat; but he felt himself seized by a pair of Cyclopean arms, accustomed to beating iron, and with a mighty thrust he was sent rolling down the stairs.
On his face there were still signs of the bruises he had received from contact with the steps, and from the blows rained upon him by the infuriated neighbors.
"In sum, sir. Breaking and entering. I'll get out in heaven knows how many years.... All for being kind-hearted. To make matters worse, they don't even give me any consideration, looking upon me as a clever criminal. Everybody knows that the real thief was _Chamorra_ whom I haven't seen since.... And they ridicule me for a silly fool."