Love in the Time of Cholera (Chapter 8)

Love in the Time of Cholera

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Chapter 8

Don Pius V Loayza died when his son was ten years old. Although he always took care of his expenses in secret, he never recognized him as his son before the law, nor did he leave him with his future secure, so that Florentino Ariza used only his mother’s name even though his true parentage was always common knowledge. Florentino Ariza had to leave school after his father’s death, and he went to work as an apprentice in the Postal Agency, where he was in charge of opening sacks, sorting the letters, and notifying the public that mail had arrived by flying the flag of its country of origin over the office door.
His good sense attracted the attention of the telegraph operator, the German émigré Lotario Thugut, who also played the organ for important ceremonies in the Cathedral and gave music lessons in the home. Lotario Thugut taught him the Morse code and the workings of the telegraph system, and after only a few lessons on the violin Florentino Ariza could play by ear like a professional. When he met Fermina Daza he was the most sought-after young man in his social circle, the one who knew how to dance the latest dances and recite sentimental poetry by heart, and who was always willing to play violin serenades to his friends’ sweethearts. He was very thin, with Indian hair plastered down with scented pomade and eyeglasses for myopia, which added to his forlorn appearance. Aside from his defective vision, he suffered from chronic constipation, which forced him to take enemas throughout his life. He had one black suit, inherited from his dead father, but Tránsito Ariza took such good care of it that every Sunday it looked new. Despite his air of weakness, his reserve, and his somber clothes, the girls in his circle held secret lotteries to determine who would spend time with him, and he gambled on spending time with them until the day he met Fermina Daza and his innocence came to an end.

He had seen her for the first time one afternoon when Lotario Thugut told him to deliver a telegram to someone named Lorenzo Daza, with no known place of residence. He found him in one of the oldest houses on the Park of the Evangels; it was half in ruins, and its interior patio, with weeds in the flowerpots and a stone fountain with no water, resembled an abbey cloister. Florentino Ariza heard no human sound as he followed the barefoot maid under the arches of the passageway, where unopened moving cartons and bricklayer’s tools lay among leftover lime and stacks of cement bags, for the house was undergoing drastic renovation. At the far end of the patio was a temporary office where a very fat man, whose curly sideburns grew into his mustache, sat behind a desk, taking his siesta. In fact his name was Lorenzo Daza, and he was not very well known in the city because he had arrived less than two years before and was not a man with many friends.

He received the telegram as if it were the continuation of an ominous dream. Florentino Ariza observed his livid eyes with a kind of official compassion, he observed his uncertain fingers trying to break the seal, the heartfelt fear that he had seen so many times in so many addressees who still could not think about telegrams without connecting them with death. After reading it he regained his composure. He sighed: “Good news.” And he handed Florentino Ariza the obligatory five reales, letting him know with a relieved smile that he would not have given them to him if the news had been bad. Then he said goodbye with a handshake, which was not the usual thing to do with a telegraph messenger, and the maid accompanied him to the street door, more to keep an eye on him than to lead the way. They retraced their steps along the arcaded passageway, but this time Florentino Ariza knew that there was someone else in the house, because the brightness in the patio was filled with the voice of a woman repeating a reading lesson. As he passed the sewing room, he saw through the window an older woman and a young girl sitting very close together on two chairs and following the reading in the book that the woman held open on her lap. It seemed a strange sight: the daughter teaching the mother to read. His interpretation was incorrect only in part, because the woman was the aunt, not the mother of the child, although she had raised her as if she were her own. The lesson was not interrupted, but the girl raised her eyes to see who was passing by the window, and that casual glance was the beginning of a cataclysm of love that still had not ended half a century later.

All that Florentino Ariza could learn about Lorenzo Daza was that he had come from San Juan de la Ciénaga with his only daughter and his unmarried sister soon after the cholera epidemic, and those who saw him disembark had no doubt that he had come to stay since he brought everything necessary for a well-furnished house. His wife had died when the girl was very young. His sister, named Escolástica, was forty years old, and she was fulfilling a vow to wear the habit of St. Francis when she went out on the street and the penitent’s rope around her waist when she was at home. The girl was thirteen years old and had the same name as her dead mother: Fermina.
It was supposed that Lorenzo Daza was a man of means, because he lived well with no known employment and had paid hard cash for the Park of the Evangels house, whose restoration must have cost him at least twice the purchase price of two hundred gold pesos. His daughter was studying at the Academy of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin, where for two centuries young ladies of society had learned the art and technique of being diligent and submissive wives. During the colonial period and the early years of the Republic, the school had accepted only those students with great family names. But the old families, ruined by Independence, had to submit to the realities of a new time, and the Academy opened its doors to all applicants who could pay the tuition, regardless of the color of their blood, on the essential condition that they were legitimate daughters of Catholic marriages. In any event, it was an expensive school, and the fact that Fermina Daza studied there was sufficient indication of her family’s economic situation, if not of its social position. This news encouraged Florentino Ariza, since it indicated to him that the beautiful adolescent with the almond-shaped eyes was within reach of his dreams. But her father’s strict regime soon provided an irremediable difficulty. Unlike the other students, who walked to school in groups or accompanied by an older servant, Fermina Daza always walked with her spinster aunt, and her behavior indicated that she was permitted no distraction.

It was in this innocent way that Florentino Ariza began his secret life as a solitary hunter. From seven o’clock in the morning, he sat on the most hidden bench in the little park, pretending to read a book of verse in the shade of the almond trees, until he saw the impossible maiden walk by in her blue-striped uniform, stockings that reached to her knees, masculine laced oxfords, and a single thick braid with a bow at the end, which hung down her back to her waist. She walked with natural haughtiness, her head high, her eyes unmoving, her step rapid, her nose pointing straight ahead, her bag of books held against her chest with crossed arms, her doe’s gait making her seem immune to gravity. At her side, struggling to keep up with her, the aunt with the brown habit and rope of St. Francis did not allow him the slightest opportunity to approach. Florentino Ariza saw them pass back and forth four times a day and once on Sundays when they came out of High Mass, and just seeing the girl was enough for him. Little by little he idealized her, endowing her with improbable virtues and imaginary sentiments, and after two weeks he thought of nothing else but her. So he decided to send Fermina Daza a simple note written on both sides of the paper in his exquisite notary’s hand. But he kept it in his pocket for several days, thinking about how to hand it to her, and while he thought he wrote several more pages before going to bed, so that the original letter was turning into a dictionary of compliments, inspired by books he had learned by heart because he read them so often during his vigils in the park.

Searching for a way to give her the letter, he tried to make the acquaintance of some of the other students at Presentation Academy, but they were too distant from his world. Besides, after much thought, it did not seem prudent to let anyone else know of his intentions. Still, he managed to find out that Fermina Daza had been invited to a Saturday dance a few days after their arrival in the city, and her father had not allowed her to go, with a conclusive: “Everything in due course.” By the time the letter contained more than sixty pages written on both sides, Florentino Ariza could no longer endure the weight of his secret, and he unburdened himself to his mother, the only person with whom he allowed himself any confidences. Tránsito Ariza was moved to tears by her son’s innocence in matters of love, and she tried to guide him with her own knowledge. She began by convincing him not to deliver the lyrical sheaf of papers, since it would only frighten the girl of his dreams, who she supposed was as green as he in matters of the heart. The first step, she said, was to make her aware of his interest so that his declaration would not take her so much by surprise and she would have time to think.
“But above all,” she said, “the first person you have to win over is not the girl but her aunt.”
Both pieces of advice were wise, no doubt, but they came too late. In reality, on the day when Fermina Daza let her mind wander for an instant from the reading lesson she was giving her aunt and raised her eyes to see who was walking along the passageway, Florentino Ariza had impressed her because of his air of vulnerability. That night, during supper, her father had mentioned the telegram, which was how she found out why Florentino Ariza had come to the house and what he did for a living. This information increased her interest, because for her, as for so many other people at that time, the invention of the telegraph had something magical about it. So that she recognized Florentino Ariza the first time she saw him reading under the trees in the little park, although it in no way disquieted her until her aunt told her he had been there for several weeks. Then, when they also saw him on Sundays as they came out of Mass, her aunt was convinced that all these meetings could not be casual. She said: “He is not going to all this trouble for me.” For despite her austere conduct and penitential habit, Aunt Escolástica had an instinct for life and a vocation for complicity, which were her greatest virtues, and the mere idea that a man was interested in her niece awakened an irresistible emotion in her. Fermina Daza, however, was still safe from even simple curiosity about love, and the only feeling that Florentino Ariza inspired in her was a certain pity, because it seemed to her that he was sick. But her aunt told her that one had to live a long time to know a man’s true nature, and she was convinced that the one who sat in the park to watch them walk by could only be sick with love.

Aunt Escolástica was a refuge of understanding and affection for the only child of a loveless marriage. She had raised her since the death of her mother, and in her relations with Lorenzo Daza she behaved more like an accomplice than an aunt. So that the appearance of Florentino Ariza was for them another of the many intimate diversions they invented to pass the time. Four times a day, when they walked through the little Park of the Evangels, both hurried to look with a rapid glance at the thin, timid, unimpressive sentinel who was almost always dressed in black despite the heat and who pretended to read under the trees. “There he is,” said the one who saw him first, suppressing her laughter, before he raised his eyes and saw the two rigid, aloof women of his life as they crossed the park without looking at him.

“Poor thing,” her aunt had said. “He does not dare approach you because I am with you, but one day he will if his intentions are serious, and then he will give you a letter.”

Foreseeing all kinds of adversities, she taught her to communicate in sign language, an indispensable strategy in forbidden love. These unexpected, almost childish antics caused an unfamiliar curiosity in Fermina Daza, but for several months it did not occur to her that it could go any further. She never knew when the diversion became a preoccupation and her blood frothed with the need to see him, and one night she awoke in terror because she saw him looking at her from the darkness at the foot of her bed. Then she longed with all her soul for her aunt’s predictions to come true, and in her prayers she begged God to give him the courage to hand her the letter just so she could know what it said.

But her prayers were not answered. On the contrary. This occurred at the time that Florentino Ariza made his confession to his mother, who dissuaded him from handing Fermina Daza his seventy pages of compliments, so that she continued to wait for the rest of the year. Her preoccupation turned into despair as the December vacation approached, and she asked herself over and over again how she would see him and let him see her during the three months when she would not be walking to school. Her doubts were still unresolved on Christmas Eve, when she was shaken by the presentiment that he was in the crowd at Midnight Mass, looking at her, and this uneasiness flooded her heart. She did not dare to turn her head, because she was sitting between her father and her aunt, and she had to control herself so that they would not notice her agitation. But in the crowd leaving the church she felt him so close, so clearly, that an irresistible power forced her to look over her shoulder as she walked along the central nave and then, a hand’s breadth from her eyes, she saw those icy eyes, that livid face, those lips petrified by the terror of love. Dismayed by her own audacity, she seized Aunt Escolástica’s arm so she would not fall, and her aunt felt the icy perspiration on her hand through the lace mitt, and she comforted her with an imperceptible sign of unconditional complicity. In the din of fireworks and native drums, of colored lights in the doorways and the clamor of the crowd yearning for peace, Florentino Ariza wandered like a sleepwalker until dawn, watching the fiesta through his tears, dazed by the hallucination that it was he and not God who had been born that night.

His delirium increased the following week, when he passed Fermina Daza’s house in despair at the siesta hour and saw that she and her aunt were sitting under the almond trees at the doorway. It was an open-air repetition of the scene he had witnessed the first afternoon in the sewing room: the girl giving a reading lesson to her aunt. But Fermina Daza seemed different without the school uniform, for she wore a narrow tunic with many folds that fell from her shoulders in the Greek style, and on her head she wore a garland of fresh gardenias that made her look like a crowned goddess. Florentino Ariza sat in the park where he was sure he would be seen, and then he did not have recourse to his feigned reading but sat with the book open and his eyes fixed on the illusory maiden, who did not even respond with a charitable glance.

At first he thought that the lesson under the almond trees was a casual innovation due, perhaps, to the interminable repairs on the house, but in the days that followed he came to understand that Fermina Daza would be there, within view, every afternoon at the same time during the three months of vacation, and that certainty filled him with new hope. He did not have the impression that he was seen, he could not detect any sign of interest or rejection, but in her indifference there was a distinct radiance that encouraged him to persevere. Then, one afternoon toward the end of January, the aunt put her work on the chair and left her niece alone in the doorway under the shower of yellow leaves falling from the almond trees. Encouraged by the impetuous thought that this was an arranged opportunity, Florentino Ariza crossed the street and stopped in front of Fermina Daza, so close to her that he could detect the catches in her breathing and the floral scent that he would identify with her for the rest of his life. He spoke with his head high and with a determination that would be his again only half a century later, and for the same reason. “All I ask is that you accept a letter from me,” he said.

It was not the voice that Fermina Daza had expected from him: it was sharp and clear, with a control that had nothing to do with his languid manner. Without lifting her eyes from her embroidery, she replied: “I cannot accept it without my father’s permission.” Florentino Ariza shuddered at the warmth of that voice, whose hushed tones he was not to forget for the rest of his life. But he held himself steady and replied without hesitation: “Get it.” Then he sweetened the command with a plea: “It is a matter of life and death.” Fermina Daza did not look at him, she did not interrupt her embroidering, but her decision opened the door a crack, wide enough for the entire world to pass through. “Come back every afternoon,” she said to him, “and wait until I change my seat.” Florentino Ariza did not understand what she meant until the following Monday when, from the bench in the little park, he saw the same scene with one variation: when Aunt Escolástica went into the house, Fermina Daza stood up and then sat in the other chair. Florentino Ariza, with a white camellia in his lapel, crossed the street and stood in front of her. He said: “This is the greatest moment of my life.” Fermina Daza did not raise her eyes to him, but she looked all around her and saw the deserted streets in the heat of the dry season and a swirl of dead leaves pulled along by the wind.

“Give it to me,” she said.
Florentino Ariza had intended to give her the seventy sheets he could recite from memory after reading them so often, but then he decided on a sober and explicit half page in which he promised only what was essential: his perfect fidelity and his everlasting love. He took the letter out of his inside jacket pocket and held it before the eyes of the troubled embroiderer, who had still not dared to look at him. She saw the blue envelope trembling in a hand petrified with terror, and she raised the embroidery frame so he could put the letter on it, for she could not admit that she had noticed the trembling of his fingers. Then it happened: a bird shook himself among the leaves of the almond trees, and his droppings fell right on the embroidery. Fermina Daza moved the frame out of the way, hid it behind the chair so that he would not notice what had happened, and looked at him for the first time, her face aflame. Florentino Ariza was impassive as he held the letter in his hand and said: “It’s good luck.” She thanked him with her first smile and almost snatched the letter away from him, folded it, and hid it in her bodice. Then he offered her the camellia he wore in his lapel. She refused: “It is a flower of promises.” Then, conscious that their time was almost over, she again took refuge in her composure. “Now go,” she said, “and don’t come back until I tell you to.”

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