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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Schoolmistress at Home
By Emilia Pardo Bazán (1852–1921)
 
From ‘The Swan of Vilamorta’: Translated from the Spanish by Mary Jane Christie Serrano

WHILE she distributed their tasks among the children, saying to one, “Take care to make this hem straight;” to another, “Make this seam even, the stitch smaller;” to a third, “Use your handkerchief instead of your dress;” and to still another, “Sit still, child; don’t move your feet,”—Leocadia cast a glance from time to time toward the plaza, in the hope of seeing Segundo pass by. But no Segundo was to be seen. The flies settled themselves to sleep, buzzing, on the ceiling; the heat abated; the afternoon came, and the children went away. Leocadia felt a profound sadness take possession of her; and without waiting to put the house in order, she went to her room and threw herself on the bed.  1
  The glass door was pushed gently open, and some one entered softly.  2
  “Mamma,” said the intruder in a low voice.  3
  The schoolmistress did not answer.  4
  “Mamma, mamma,” repeated the hunchback in a louder voice. “Mamma!” he shouted at last.  5
  “Is that you? What do you want?”  6
  “Are you ill?”  7
  “No, child.”  8
  “As you went to bed—”  9
  “I have a slight headache. There, leave me in peace.”  10
  Minguitos turned round and walked in silence toward the door. As her eyes fell on the protuberance of his back, a sharp pang pierced the heart of the schoolmistress. How many tears that hump had cost her in other days! She raised herself on her elbow.  11
  “Minguitos!” she called.  12
  “What is it, mamma?”  13
  “Don’t go away. How do you feel to-day? Have you any pain?”  14
  “I feel pretty well, mamma. Only my chest hurts me.”  15
  “Let me see; come here.”  16
  Leocadia sat up in the bed, and taking the child’s head between her hands, looked at him with a mother’s hungry look. Minguitos’s face was long and of a melancholy cast; the prominent lower jaw was in keeping with the twisted and misshapen body, that reminded one of a building shaken out of shape by an earthquake or a tree twisted by a hurricane. Minguitos’s deformity was not congenital. He had always been sickly, indeed; and it had always been remarked that his head seemed too heavy for his body, and that his legs seemed too frail to support him. Leocadia recalled one by one the incidents of his childhood. At five years old the boy had met with an accident,—a fall down the stairs: from that day he lost all his liveliness; he walked little, and never ran. He contracted a habit of sitting Turkish fashion, playing marbles, for hours at a time. If he rose, his legs soon warned him to sit down again. When he stood, his movements were vacillating and awkward. When he was quiet he felt no pain; but when he turned any part of his body, he experienced slight pains in the spinal column. The trouble increased with time; the boy complained of a feeling as if an iron band were compressing his chest. Then his mother, now thoroughly alarmed, consulted a famous physician, the best in Orense. He prescribed frictions with iodine, large doses of phosphates of lime, and sea-bathing. Leocadia hastened with the boy to a little seaport. After taking two or three baths, the trouble increased: he could not bend his body; his spinal column was rigid, and it was only when he was in a horizontal position that he felt any relief from his now severe pains. Sores appeared on his skin; and one morning when Leocadia begged him with tears to straighten himself, and tried to lift him up by the arms, he uttered a horrible cry.  17
  “I am broken in two, mamma—I am broken in two,” he repeated with anguish; while his mother with trembling fingers sought to find what had caused his cry.  18
  It was true! The backbone had bent outward, forming an angle on a level with his shoulder-blades; the softened vertebræ had sunk; and cifosis, the hump,—the indelible mark of irremediable calamity,—was to deform henceforth this child who was dearer to her than her life. The schoolmistress had had a moment of animal and supreme anguish, the anguish of the wild beast that sees its young mutilated. She had uttered shriek after shriek, cursing the doctor, cursing herself, tearing her hair and digging her nails into her flesh. Afterward tears had come, and she had showered kisses, delirious but soothing and sweet, on the boy; and her grief took a resigned form. During nine years Leocadia had had no other thought than to watch over her little cripple by night and by day; sheltering him in her love, amusing with ingenious inventions the idle hours of his sedentary childhood.  19
  A thousand incidents of this time recurred to Leocadia’s memory. The boy suffered from obstinate dyspnœa, due to the pressure of the sunken vertebræ on the respiratory organs; and his mother would get up in the middle of the night, and go in her bare feet to listen to his breathing and to raise his pillows. As these recollections came to her mind, Leocadia felt her heart melt, and something stir within her like the remains of a great love,—the warm ashes of an immense fire,—and she experienced the unconscious reaction of maternity; the irresistible impulse which makes a mother see in her grown-up son only the infant she has nursed and protected,—to whom she would have given her blood, if it had been necessary, instead of milk. And uttering a cry of love, pressing her feverish lips passionately to the pallid temples of the hunchback, she said, falling back naturally into the caressing expressions of the dialect:—  20
  “Malpocadiño, who loves you? Say, who loves you dearly? Who?”  21
  “You don’t love me, mamma. You don’t love me,” the boy returned, half smiling, leaning his head with delight on the bosom that had sheltered his sad childhood. The mother, meantime, wildly kissed his hair, his neck, his eyes, as if to make up for lost time; lavishing upon him the honeyed words with which infants are beguiled,—words profaned in hours of passion,—which overflowed in the pure channel of maternal love.  22
  “My treasure—my king—my glory.”  23
  At last the hunchback felt a tear fall on his cheek. Delicious assuagement! At first the tears were large and round, scorching almost; but soon they came in a gentle shower, and then ceased altogether; and there remained where they had fallen only a grateful sense of coolness. Passionate phrases rushed simultaneously from the lips of mother and son.  24
  “Do you love me dearly, dearly, dearly? As much as your whole life?”  25
  “As much, my life, my treasure.”  26
  “Will you always love me?”  27
  “Always, always, my joy.”  28
  “Will you do something to please me, mamma? I want to ask you—”  29
  “What?”  30
  “A favor. Don’t turn your face away!”  31
  The hunchback observed that his mother’s form suddenly grew stiff and rigid as a bar of iron. He no longer felt the sweet warmth of her moist eyelids, and the gentle contact of her wet lashes on his cheek. In a voice that had a metallic sound Leocadia asked her son,—  32
  “And what is the favor you want? Let me hear it.”  33
  Minguitos murmured without bitterness, with resignation:—  34
  “Nothing, mamma, nothing. I was only in jest.”  35
  “But what was the favor you were going to ask me?”  36
  “Nothing, nothing, indeed.”  37
  “No, you wanted to ask something,” persisted the schoolmistress, seizing the pretext to give vent to her anger. “Otherwise you are very deceitful and very sly. You keep everything hidden in your breast. Those are the lessons Flores teaches you: do you think I don’t notice it?”  38
  Saying this, she pushed the boy away from her, and sprang from the bed. In the hall outside, almost at the same moment, was heard a firm and youthful step. Leocadia trembled, and turning to Minguitos, stammered:—  39
  “Go, go to Flores. Leave me alone. I do not feel well, and you make me worse.”  40
  Segundo’s brow was clouded; and as soon as the joy of seeing him had subsided, Leocadia was seized with the desire to restore him to good-humor. She waited patiently for a fitting opportunity, however, and when this came, throwing her arms around his neck, she began with the complaint: Where had he kept himself? Why had he stayed away so long? The poet unburdened himself of his grievances. It was intolerable to follow in the train of a great man. And allowing himself to be carried away by the pleasure of speaking of what occupied his mind, he described Don Victoriano and the radicals; satirized Agonde’s reception of his guests, and his manner of entertaining them; spoke of the hopes he founded in the protection of the ex-minister, giving them as a reason for the necessity of paying court to Don Victoriano. Leocadia fixed her dog-like look on Segundo’s countenance.  41
  “And the Señora and the girl—what are they like?”  42
  Segundo half closed his eyes, the better to contemplate an attractive and charming image that presented itself to his mental vision, and to reflect that in the existence of Nieves he played no part whatsoever,—it being manifest folly for him to think of Señora de Comba, who did not think of him. This reflection, natural and simple enough, aroused his anger. There was awakened within him a keen longing for the unattainable,—that insensate and unbridled desire with which the likeness of a beautiful woman dead for centuries may inspire some dreamer in a museum.  43
  “But answer me—are those ladies handsome?” the schoolmistress asked again.  44
  “The mother, yes,” answered Segundo, speaking with the careless frankness of one who is secure of his auditor. “Her hair is fair, and her eyes are blue—a light blue that makes one think of the verses of Becquer.”  45
  And he began to recite:—
  “‘Tu pupila es azul, y cuando ries
Su claridad suave me recuerda—’”
  46
  Leocadia listened to him at first with eyes cast down; afterward with her face turned away from him. When he had finished the poem she said in an altered voice, with feigned calmness:—  47
  “They will invite you to go there.”  48
  “Where?”  49
  “To Las Vides, of course. I hear they intend to have a great deal of company.”  50
  “Yes; they have given me a pressing invitation, but I shall not go. Uncle Clodio insists upon it that I ought to cultivate the friendship of Don Victoriano, so that he may be of use to me in Madrid, and help me to get a position there. But, child, to go and play a sorry part is not to my liking. This suit is the best I have, and it is in last year’s fashion. If they play tresillo or give tips to the servants—and it is impossible to make my father understand this—and I shall not try to do so; God forbid. So that they shall not catch a sight of me in Las Vides.”  51
  When she heard what his intentions were, Leocadia’s countenance cleared up, and rising, radiant with happiness, she ran to the kitchen. Flores was washing plates and cups and saucers by the light of a lamp, knocking them angerly together, and rubbing savagely.  52
  “The coffee-pot—did you clean it?”  53
  “Presently, presently,” responded the old woman. “Any one would think that one was made of wood, that one is never to get tired—that one can do things flying.”  54
  “Give it to me; I will clean it. Put more wood on the fire: it is going out and the beefsteak will be spoiled.” And so saying, Leocadia washed the coffee-pot, cleaning the filter with a knitting-needle, and put some fresh water down to boil in a new saucepan, throwing more wood on the fire.  55
  “Yes, heap on wood,” growled Flores, “as we get it for nothing!”  56
  Leocadia, who was slicing some potatoes for the beefsteak, paid no attention to her. When she had cut up as many as she judged necessary, she washed her hands hastily in the jar of the drain, full of dirty water, on whose surface floated large patches of grease. She then hurried to the parlor where Segundo was waiting for her, and soon afterward Flores brought in the supper, which they ate, seated at a small side-table. By the time they had got to the coffee Segundo began to be more communicative. This coffee was what Leocadia most prided herself on. She had bought a set of English china, an imitation lacquer-box, a vermeil sugar-tongs, and two small silver spoons; and she always placed on the table with the coffee a liquor-stand, supplied with cumin, rum, and anisette. At the third glass of cumin, seeing the poet amiable and propitious, Leocadia put her arm around his neck. He drew back brusquely, noticing with strong repulsion the odor of cooking and of parsley with which the garments of the schoolmistress were impregnated.  57
  At this moment precisely, Minguitos, after letting his shoes drop on the floor, was drawing the coverlet around him with a sigh. Flores, seated on a low chair, began to recite the rosary. The sick child required, to put him to sleep, the monotonous murmur of the husky voice which had lulled him to rest, ever since his mother had ceased to keep him company at bedtime. The Ave Marias and Gloria Patris, mumbled rather than pronounced, little by little dulled thought; and by the time the litany was reached, sleep had stolen over him, and half-unconscious, it was with difficulty he made the responses to the barbarous phrases of the old woman: “Juana celi—Ora pro nobis—Sal-esenfermorum—nobis—Refajos pecadorum—bis—Consolate flitorum—sss—”  58
  The only response was the labored, restless, uneven breathing that came through the sleeping boy’s half-closed lips. Flores softly put out the tallow candle, took off her shoes in order to make no noise, and stole out gently, feeling her way along the dining-room wall. From the moment in which Minguitos fell asleep there was no more rattling of dishes in the kitchen.  59
 
 
CONTENTS · GENERAL INDEX · SONGS & LYRICS · BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY
READER’S DIGEST · STUDENT’S COURSE · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD
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