Love in the Time of Cholera (Chapter 7)

Love in the Time of Cholera 

Gabriel Garcia Manquez

Chapter 7

Dr. Juvenal Urbino never accepted the public positions that were offered to him with frequency and without conditions, and he was a pitiless critic of those physicians who used their professional prestige to attain political office. Although he was always considered a Liberal and was in the habit of voting for that party’s candidates, it was more a question of tradition than conviction, and he was perhaps the last member of the great families who still knelt in the street when the Archbishop’s carriage drove by. He defined himself as a natural pacifist, a partisan of definitive reconciliation between Liberals and Conservatives for the good of the nation. But his public conduct was so autonomous that no group claimed him for its own: the Liberals considered him a Gothic troglodyte, the Conservatives said he was almost a Mason, and the Masons repudiated him as a secret cleric in the service of the Holy See. His less savage critics thought he was just an aristocrat enraptured by the delights of the Poetic Festival while the nation bled to death in an endless civil war.

Only two of his actions did not seem to conform to this image. The first was his leaving the former palace of the Marquis de Casalduero, which had been the family mansion for over a century, and moving to a new house in a neighborhood of nouveaux riches. The other was his marriage to a beauty from the lower classes, without name or fortune, whom the ladies with long last names ridiculed in secret until they were forced to admit that she outshone them all in distinction and character. Dr. Urbino was always acutely aware of these and many other cracks in his public image, and no one was as conscious as he of being the last to bear a family name on its way to extinction. His children were two undistinguished ends of a line. After fifty years, his son, Marco Aurelio, a doctor like himself and like all the family’s firstborn sons in every generation, had done nothing worthy of note–he had not even produced a child. Dr. Urbino’s only daughter, Ofelia, was married to a solid bank employee from New Orleans, and had reached the climacteric with three daughters and no son. But although stemming the flow of his blood into the tide of history caused him pain, what worried Dr. Urbino most about dying was the solitary life Fermina Daza would lead without him.

In any event, the tragedy not only caused an uproar among his own household but spread to the common people as well. They thronged the streets in the hope of seeing something, even if it was only the brilliance of the legend. Three days of mourning were proclaimed, flags were flown at half mast in public buildings, and the bells in all the churches tolled without pause until the crypt in the family mausoleum was sealed. A group from the School of Fine Arts made a death mask that was to be used as the mold for a life-size bust, but the project was canceled because no one thought the faithful rendering of his final terror was decent. A renowned artist who happened to be stopping here on his way to Europe painted, with pathos-laden realism, a gigantic canvas in which Dr. Urbino was depicted on the ladder at the fatal moment when he stretched out his hand to capture the parrot. The only element that contradicted the raw truth of the story was that in the painting he was wearing not the collarless shirt and the suspenders with green stripes, but rather a bowler hat and black frock coat copied from a rotogravure made during the years of the cholera epidemic. So that everyone would have the chance to see it, the painting was exhibited for a few months after the tragedy in the vast gallery of The Golden Wire, a shop that sold imported merchandise, and the entire city filed by. Then it was displayed on the walls of all the public and private institutions that felt obliged to pay tribute to the memory of their illustrious patron, and at last it was hung, after a second funeral, in the School of Fine Arts, where it was pulled down many years later by art students who burned it in the Plaza of the University as a symbol of an aesthetic and a time they despised.

From her first moment as a widow, it was obvious that Fermina Daza was not as helpless as her husband had feared. She was adamant in her determination not to allow the body to be used for any cause, and she remained so even after the honorific telegram from the President of the Republic ordering it to lie in state for public viewing in the Assembly Chamber of the Provincial Government. With the same serenity she opposed a vigil in the Cathedral, which the Archbishop himself had requested, and she agreed to the body’s lying there only during the funeral Mass. Even after the mediation of her son, who was dumbfounded by so many different requests, Fermina Daza was firm in her rustic notion that the dead belong only to the family, and that the vigil would be kept at home, with mountain coffee and fritters and everyone free to weep for him in any way they chose. There would be no traditional nine-night wake: the doors were closed after the funeral and did not open again except for visits from intimate friends.

The house was under the rule of death. Every object of value had been locked away with care for safekeeping, and on the bare walls there were only the outlines of the pictures that had been taken down. Chairs from the house, and those lent by the neighbors, were lined up against the walls from the drawing room to the bedrooms, and the empty spaces seemed immense and the voices had a ghostly resonance because the large pieces of furniture had been moved to one side, except for the concert piano which stood in its corner under a white sheet. In the middle of the library, on his father’s desk, what had once been Juvenal Urbino de la Calle was laid out with no coffin, with his final terror petrified on his face, and with the black cape and military sword of the Knights of the Holy Sepulcher. At his side, in complete mourning, tremulous, hardly moving, but very much in control of herself, Fermina Daza received condolences with no great display of feeling until eleven the following morning, when she bade farewell to her husband from the portico, waving goodbye with a handkerchief.

It had not been easy for her to regain her self-control after she heard Digna Pardo’s shriek in the patio and found the old man of her life dying in the mud. Her first reaction was one of hope, because his eyes were open and shining with a radiant light she had never seen there before. She prayed to God to give him at least a moment so that he would not go without knowing how much she had loved him despite all their doubts, and she felt an irresistible longing to begin life with him over again so that they could say what they had left unsaid and do everything right that they had done badly in the past. But she had to give in to the intransigence of death. Her grief exploded into a blind rage against the world, even against herself, and that is what filled her with the control and the courage to face her solitude alone. From that time on she had no peace, but she was careful about any gesture that might seem to betray her grief. The only moment of pathos, although it was involuntary, occurred at eleven o’clock Sunday night when they brought in the episcopal coffin, still smelling of ship’s wax, with its copper handles and tufted silk lining. Dr. Urbino Daza ordered it closed without delay since the air in the house was already rarefied with the heady fragrance of so many flowers in the sweltering heat, and he thought he had seen the first purplish shadows on his father’s neck. An absent-minded voice was heard in the silence: “At that age you’re half decayed while you’re still alive.” Before they closed the coffin Fermina Daza took off her wedding ring and put it on her dead husband’s finger, and then she covered his hand with hers, as she always did when she caught him digressing in public.

“We will see each other very soon,” she said to him.

Florentino Ariza, unseen in the crowd of notable personages, felt a piercing pain in his side. Fermina Daza had not recognized him in the confusion of the first condolences, although no one would be more ready to serve or more useful during the night’s urgent business. It was he who imposed order in the crowded kitchens so that there would be enough coffee. He found additional chairs when the neighbors’ proved insufficient, and he ordered the extra wreaths to be put in the patio when there was no more room in the house. He made certain there was enough brandy for Dr. Lácides Olivella’s guests, who had heard the bad news at the height of the silver anniversary celebration and had rushed in to continue the party, sitting in a circle under the mango tree. He was the only one who knew how to react when the fugitive parrot appeared in the dining room at midnight with his head high and his wings spread, which caused a stupefied shudder to run through the house, for it seemed a sign of repentance. Florentino Ariza seized him by the neck before he had time to shout any of his witless stock phrases, and he carried him to the stable in a covered cage. He did everything this way, with so much discretion and such efficiency that it did not even occur to anyone that it might be an intrusion in other people’s affairs;
on the contrary, it seemed a priceless service when evil times had fallen on the house.
He was what he seemed: a useful and serious old man. His body was bony and erect, his skin dark and clean-shaven, his eyes avid behind round spectacles in silver frames, and he wore a romantic, old-fashioned mustache with waxed tips. He combed the last tufts of hair at his temples upward and plastered them with brilliantine to the middle of his shining skull as a solution to total baldness. His natural gallantry and languid manner were immediately charming, but they were also considered suspect virtues in a confirmed bachelor. He had spent a great deal of money, ingenuity, and willpower to disguise the seventy-six years he had completed in March, and he was convinced in the solitude of his soul that he had loved in silence for a much longer time than anyone else in this world ever had.

The night of Dr. Urbino’s death, he was dressed just as he had been when he first heard the news, which was how he always dressed, even in the infernal heat of June: a dark suit with a vest, a silk bow tie and a celluloid collar, a felt hat, and a shiny black umbrella that he also used a walking stick. But when it began to grow light he left the vigil for two hours and returned as fresh as the rising sun, carefully shaven and fragrant with lotions from his dressing table. He had changed into a black frock coat of the kind worn only for funerals and the offices of Holy Week, a wing collar with an artist’s bow instead of a tie, and a bowler hat. He also carried his umbrella, not just out of habit but because he was certain that it would rain before noon, and he informed Dr. Urbino Daza of this in case the funeral could be held earlier. They tried to do so, in fact, because Florentino Ariza belonged to a shipping family and was himself President of the River Company of the Caribbean, which allowed one to suppose that he knew something about predicting the weather. But they could not alter the arrangements in time with the civil and military authorities, the public and private corporations, the military band, the School of Fine Arts orchestra, and the schools and religious fraternities, which were prepared for eleven o’clock, so the funeral that had been anticipated as a historic event turned into a rout because of a devastating downpour. Very few people splashed through the mud to the family mausoleum, protected by a colonial ceiba tree whose branches spread over the cemetery wall. On the previous afternoon, under those same branches but in the section on the other side of the wall reserved for suicides, the Caribbean refugees had buried Jeremiah de Saint-Amour with his dog beside him, as he had requested.

Florentino Ariza was one of the few who stayed until the funeral was over. He was soaked to the skin and returned home terrified that he would catch pneumonia after so many years of meticulous care and excessive precautions. He prepared hot lemonade with a shot of brandy, drank it in bed with two aspirin tablets, and, wrapped in a wool blanket, sweated by the bucketful until the proper equilibrium had been reestablished in his body. When he returned to the wake he felt his vitality completely restored. Fermina Daza had once again assumed command of the house, which was cleaned and ready to receive visitors, and on the altar in the library she had placed a portrait in pastels of her dead husband, with a black border around the frame. By eight o’clock there were as many people and as intense a heat as the night before, but after the rosary someone circulated the request that everyone leave early so that the widow could rest for the first time since Sunday afternoon.

Fermina Daza said goodbye to most of them at the altar, but she accompanied the last group of intimate friends to the street door so that she could lock it herself, as she had always done, as she was prepared to do with her final breath, when she saw Florentino Ariza, dressed in mourning and standing in the middle of the deserted drawing room. She was pleased, because for many years she had erased him from her life, and this was the first time she saw him clearly, purified by forgetfulness. But before she could thank him for the visit, he placed his hat over his heart, tremulous and dignified, and the abscess that had sustained his life finally burst.

“Fermina,” he said, “I have waited for this opportunity for more than half a century, to repeat to you once again my vow of eternal fidelity and everlasting love.”

Fermina Daza would have thought she was facing a madman if she had not had reason to believe that at that moment Florentino Ariza was inspired by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Her first impulse was to curse him for profaning the house when the body of her husband was still warm in the grave. But the dignity of her fury held her back. “Get out of here,” she said. “And don’t show your face again for the years of life that are left to you.” She opened the street door, which she had begun to close, and concluded:

“And I hope there are very few of them.”

When she heard his steps fade away in the deserted street she closed the door very slowly with the crossbar and the locks, and faced her destiny alone. Until that moment she had never been fully conscious of the weight and size of the drama that she had provoked when she was not yet eighteen, and that would pursue her until her death. She wept for the first time since the afternoon of the disaster, without witnesses, which was the only way she wept. She wept for the death of her husband, for her solitude and rage, and when she went into the empty bedroom she wept for herself because she had rarely slept alone in that bed since the loss of her virginity. Everything that belonged to her husband made her weep again: his tasseled slippers, his pajamas under the pillow, the space of his absence in the dressing table mirror, his own odor on her skin. A vague thought made her shudder: “The people one loves should take all their things with them when they die.” She did not want anyone’s help to get ready for bed, she did not want to eat anything before she went to sleep. Crushed by grief, she prayed to God to send her death that night while she slept, and with that hope she lay down, barefoot but fully dressed, and fell asleep on the spot. She slept without realizing it, but she knew in her sleep that she was still alive, and that she had half a bed to spare, that she was lying on her left side on the left-hand side of the bed as she always did, but that she missed the weight of the other body on the other side. Thinking as she slept, she thought that she would never again be able to sleep this way, and she began to sob in her sleep, and she slept, sobbing, without changing position on her side of the bed, until long after the roosters crowed and she was awakened by the despised sun of the morning without him. Only then did she realize that she had slept a long time without dying, sobbing in her sleep, and that while she slept, sobbing, she had thought more about Florentino Ariza than about her dead husband.

FLORENTINO ARIZA, on the other hand, had not stopped thinking of her for a single moment since Fermina Daza had rejected him out of hand after a long and troubled love affair fifty-one years, nine months, and four days ago. He did not have to keep a running tally, drawing a line for each day on the walls of a cell, because not a day had passed that something did not happen to remind him of her. At the time of their separation he lived with his mother, Tránsito Ariza, in one half of a rented house on the Street of Windows, where she had kept a notions shop ever since she was a young woman, and where she also unraveled shirts and old rags to sell as bandages for the men wounded in the war. He was her only child, born of an occasional alliance with the well-known shipowner Don Pius V Loayza, one of the three brothers who had founded the River Company of the Caribbean and thereby given new impetus to steam navigation along the Magdalena River.

 

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