Love in the Time of Cholera (Chapter 18)

Love in the Time of Cholera

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Chapter 18

One night, a short while after the serenade by solo piano, Lorenzo Daza discovered a letter, its envelope sealed with wax, in the entryway to his house. It was addressed to his daughter and the monogram “J.U.C.” was imprinted on the seal. He slipped it under the door as he passed Fermina’s bedroom, and she never understood how it had come there, since it was inconceivable to her that her father had changed so much that he would bring her a letter from a suitor. She left it on the night table, for the truth was she did not know what to do with it, and there it stayed, unopened, for several days, until one rainy afternoon when Fermina Daza dreamed that Juvenal Urbino had returned to the house to give her the tongue depressor he had used to examine her throat. In the dream, the tongue depressor was made not of aluminum but of a delicious metal that she had tasted with pleasure in other dreams, so that she broke it in two unequal pieces and gave him the smaller one.

When she awoke she opened the letter. It was brief and proper, and all that Juvenal Urbino asked was permission to request her father’s permission to visit her. She was impressed by its simplicity and seriousness, and the rage she had cultivated with so much love for so many days faded away on the spot. She kept the letter in the bottom of her trunk, but she remembered that she had also kept Florentino Ariza’s perfumed letters there, and she took it out of the chest to find another place for it, shaken by a rush of shame. Then it seemed that the most decent thing to do was to pretend she had not received it, and she burned it in the lamp, watching how the drops of wax exploded into blue bubbles above the flame. She sighed: “Poor man.” And then she realized that it was the second time she had said those words in little more than a year, and for a moment she thought about Florentino Ariza, and even she was surprised at how removed he was from her life: poor man.

 

(C6)

Three more letters arrived with the last rains in October, the first of them accompanied by a little box of violet pastilles from Flavigny Abbey. Two had been delivered at the door by Dr. Juvenal Urbino’s coachman, and the Doctor had greeted Gala Placidia from the carriage window, first so that there would be no doubt that the letters were his, and second so that no one could tell him they had not been received. Moreover, both of them were sealed with his monogram in wax and written in the cryptic scrawl that Fermina Daza already recognized as a physician’s handwriting. Both of them said in substance what had been said in the first, and were conceived in the same submissive spirit, but underneath their propriety one could begin to detect an impatience that was never evident in the parsimonious letters of Florentino Ariza. Fermina Daza read them as soon as they were delivered, two weeks apart, and without knowing why, she changed her mind as she was about to throw them into the fire. But she never thought of answering them.

The third letter in October had been slipped under the street door, and was in every way different from the previous ones. The handwriting was so childish that there was no doubt it had been scrawled with the left hand, but Fermina Daza did not realize that until the text itself proved to be a poison pen letter. Whoever had written it took for granted that Fermina Daza had bewitched Dr. Juvenal Urbino with her love potions, and from that supposition sinister conclusions had been drawn. It ended with a threat: if Fermina Daza did not renounce her efforts to move up in the world by means of the most desirable man in the city, she would be exposed to public disgrace.

She felt herself the victim of a grave injustice, but her reaction was not vindictive. On the contrary: she would have liked to discover who the author of the anonymous letter was in order to convince him of his error with all the pertinent explanations, for she felt certain that never, for any reason, would she respond to the wooing of Juvenal Urbino. In the days that followed she received two more unsigned letters, as perfidious as the first, but none of the three seemed to be written by the same person. Either she was the victim of a plot, or the false version of her secret love affair had gone further than anyone could imagine. She was disturbed by the idea that it was all the result of a simple indiscretion on the part of Juvenal Urbino. It occurred to her that perhaps he was different from his worthy appearance, that perhaps he talked too much when he was making house calls and boasted of imaginary conquests, as did so many other men of his class. She thought about writing him a letter to reproach him for the insult to her honor, but then she decided against the idea because that might be just what he wanted. She tried to learn more from the friends who painted with her in the sewing room, but they had heard only benign comments concerning the serenade by solo piano. She felt furious, impotent, humiliated. In contrast to her initial feeling that she wanted to meet with her invisible enemy in order to convince him of his errors, now she only wanted to cut him to ribbons with the pruning shears. She spent sleepless nights analyzing details and phrases in the anonymous letters in the hope of finding some shred of comfort. It was a vain hope: Fermina Daza was, by nature, alien to the inner world of the Urbino de la Calle family, and she had weapons for defending herself from their good actions but not from their evil ones.

This conviction became even more bitter after the fear caused by the black doll that was sent to her without any letter, but whose origin seemed easy to imagine: only Dr. Juvenal Urbino could have sent it. It had been bought in Martinique, according to the original tag, and it was dressed in an exquisite gown, its hair rippled with gold threads, and it closed its eyes when it was laid down. It seemed so charming to Fermina Daza that she overcame her scruples and laid it on her pillow during the day and grew accustomed to sleeping with it at night. After a time, however, she discovered when she awoke from an exhausting dream that the doll was growing: the original exquisite dress she had arrived in was up above her thighs, and her shoes had burst from the pressure of her feet. Fermina Daza had heard of African spells, but none as frightening as this. On the other hand, she could not imagine that a man like Juvenal Urbino would be capable of such an atrocity. She was right: the doll had been brought not by his coachman but by an itinerant shrimpmonger whom no one knew. Trying to solve the enigma, Fermina Daza thought for a moment of Florentino Ariza, whose depressed condition caused her dismay, but life convinced her of her error. The mystery was never clarified, and just thinking about it made her shudder with fear long after she was married and had children and thought of herself as destiny’s darling: the happiest woman in the world.

Dr. Urbino’s last resort was the mediation of Sister Franca de la Luz, Superior of the Academy of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin, who could not deny the request of a family that had supported her Community since its establishment in the Americas. She appeared one morning at nine o’clock in the company of a novice, and for half an hour the two of them had to amuse themselves with the birdcages while Fermina Daza finished her bath. She was a masculine German with a metallic accent and an imperious gaze that had no relationship to her puerile passions. Fermina Daza hated her and everything that had to do with her more than anything in this world, and the mere memory of her false piety made scorpions crawl in her belly. Just the sight of her from the bathroom door was enough to revive the torture of school, the unbearable boredom of daily Mass, the terror of examinations, the servile diligence of the novices, all of that life distorted by the prism of spiritual poverty. Sister Franca de la Luz, on the other hand, greeted her with a joy that seemed sincere. She was surprised at how much she had grown and matured, and she praised the good judgment with which she managed the house, the good taste evident in the patio, the brazier filled with orange blossoms. She ordered the novice to wait for her without getting too close to the crows, who in a careless moment might peck out her eyes, and she looked for a private spot where she could sit down and talk alone with Fermina, who invited her into the drawing room.

It was a brief and bitter visit. Sister Franca de la Luz, wasting no time on formalities, offered honorable reinstatement to Fermina Daza. The reason for her expulsion would be erased not only from the records but also from the memory of the Community, and this would allow her to finish her studies and receive her baccalaureate degree. Fermina Daza was perplexed and wanted to know why.

“It is the request of someone who deserves everything he desires and whose only wish is to make you happy,” said the nun. “Do you know who that is?”

Then she understood. She asked herself with what authority a woman who had made her life miserable because of an innocent letter served as the emissary of love, but she did not dare to speak of it. Instead she said yes, she knew that man, and by the same token she also knew that he had no right to interfere in her life.

“All he asks is that you allow him to speak with you for five minutes,” said the nun. “I am certain your father will agree.”

Fermina Daza’s anger grew more intense at the idea that her father was an accessory to the visit.

“We saw each other twice when I was sick,” she said. “Now there is no reason for us to see each other again.”

“For any woman with a shred of sense, that man is a gift from Divine Providence,” said the nun.

She continued to speak of his virtues, of his devotion, of his dedication to serving those in pain. As she spoke she pulled from her sleeve a gold rosary with Christ carved in marble, and dangled it in front of Fermina Daza’s eyes. It was a family heirloom, more than a hundred years old, carved by a goldsmith from Siena and blessed by Clement IV. “It is yours,” she said.

Fermina Daza felt the blood pounding through her veins, and then she dared.

“I do not understand how you can lend yourself to this,” she said, “if you think that love is a sin.”

Sister Franca de la Luz pretended not to notice the remark, but her eyelids flamed. She continued to dangle the rosary in front of Fermina Daza’s eyes.

“It would be better for you to come to an understanding with me,” she said, “because after me comes His Grace the Archbishop, and it is a different story with him.”

“Let him come,” said Fermina Daza.

Sister Franca de la Luz tucked the gold rosary into her sleeve. Then from the other she took a well-used handkerchief squeezed into a ball and held it tight in her fist, looking at Fermina Daza from a great distance and with a smile of commiseration.

“My poor child,” she sighed, “you are still thinking about that man.” Fermina Daza chewed on the impertinence as she looked at the nun without blinking, looked her straight in the eye without speaking, chewing in silence, until she saw with infinite satisfaction that those masculine eyes had filled with tears. Sister Franca de la Luz dried them with the ball of the handkerchief and stood up.

“Your father is right when he says that you are a mule,” she said.

The Archbishop did not come. So the siege might have ended that day if Hildebranda Sánchez had not arrived to spend Christmas with her cousin, and life changed for both of them. They met her on the schooner from Riohacha at five o’clock in the morning, surrounded by a crowd of passengers half dead from seasickness, but she walked off the boat radiant, very much a woman, and excited after the bad night at sea. She arrived with crates of live turkeys and all the fruits of her fertile lands so that no one would lack for food during her visit. Lisímaco Sánchez, her father, sent a message asking if they needed musicians for their holiday parties, because he had the best at his disposal, and he promised to send a load of fireworks later on. He also announced that he could not come for his daughter before March, so there was plenty of time for them to enjoy life. The two cousins began at once. From the first afternoon they bathed together, naked, the two of them making their reciprocal ablutions with water from the cistern. They soaped each other, they removed each other’s nits, they compared their buttocks, their quiet breasts, each looking at herself in the other’s mirror to judge with what cruelty time had treated them since the last occasion when they had seen each other undressed. Hildebranda was large and solid, with golden skin, but all the hair on her body was like a mulatta’s, as short and curly as steel wool. Fermina Daza, on the other hand, had a pale nakedness, with long lines, serene skin, and straight hair. Gala Placidia had two identical beds placed in the bedroom, but at times they lay together in one and talked in the dark until dawn. They smoked long, thin highwaymen’s cigars that Hildebranda had hidden in the lining of her trunk, and afterward they had to burn Armenian paper to purify the rank smell they left behind in the bedroom. Fermina Daza had smoked for the first time in Valledupar, and had continued in Fonseca and Riohacha, where as many as ten cousins would lock themselves in a room to talk about men and to smoke. She learned to smoke backward, with the lit end in her mouth, the way men smoked at night during the wars so that the glow of their cigarettes would not betray them. But she had never smoked alone. With Hildebranda in her house, she smoked every night before going to sleep, and it was then that she acquired the habit although she always hid it, even from her husband and her children, not only because it was thought improper for a woman to smoke in public but because she associated the pleasure with secrecy. Hildebranda’s trip had also been imposed by her parents in an effort to put distance between her and her impossible love, although they wanted her to think that it was to help Fermina decide on a good match. Hildebranda had accepted, hoping to mock forgetfulness as her cousin had done before her, and she had arranged with the telegraph operator in Fonseca to send her messages with the greatest prudence. And that is why her disillusion was so bitter when she learned that Fermina Daza had rejected Florentino Ariza. Moreover, Hildebranda had a universal conception of love, and she believed that whatever happened to one love affected all other loves throughout the world. Still, she did not renounce her plan. With an audacity that caused a crisis of dismay in Fermina Daza, she went to the telegraph office alone, intending to win the favor of Florentino Ariza.

She would not have recognized him, for there was nothing about him that corresponded to the image she had formed from Fermina Daza. At first glance it seemed impossible that her cousin could have been on the verge of madness because of that almost invisible clerk with his air of a whipped dog, whose clothing, worthy of a rabbi in disgrace, and whose solemn manner could not perturb anyone’s heart. But she soon repented of her first impression, for Florentino Ariza placed himself at her unconditional service without knowing who she was: he never found out. No one could have understood her as he did, so that he did not ask for identification or even for her address. His solution was very simple: she would pass by the telegraph office on Wednesday afternoons so that he could place her lover’s answers in her hand, and nothing more. And yet when he read the written message that Hildebranda brought him, he asked if she would accept a suggestion, and she agreed. Florentino Ariza first made some corrections between the lines, erased them, rewrote them, had no more room, and at last tore up the page and wrote a completely new message that she thought very touching. When she left the telegraph office, Hildebranda was on the verge of tears.

“He is ugly and sad,” she said to Fermina Daza, “but he is all love.” What most struck Hildebranda was her cousin’s solitude. She seemed, she told her, an old maid of twenty. Accustomed to large scattered families in houses where no one was certain how many people were living or eating at any given time, Hildebranda could not imagine a girl her age reduced to the cloister of a private life. That was true: from the time she awoke at six in the morning until she turned out the light in the bedroom, Fermina Daza devoted herself to killing time. Life was imposed on her from outside. First, at the final rooster crow, the milkman woke her with his rapping on the door knocker. Then came the knock of the fishwife with her box of red snappers dying on a bed of algae, the sumptuous fruit sellers with vegetables from María la Baja and fruit from San Jacinto. And then, for the rest of the day, everyone knocked at the door: beggars, girls with lottery tickets, the Sisters of Charity, the knife grinder with the gossip, the man who bought bottles, the man who bought old gold, the man who bought newspapers, the fake gypsies who offered to read one’s destiny in cards, in the lines of one’s palm, in coffee grounds, in the water in washbasins. Gala Placidia spent the week opening and closing the street door to say no, another day, or shouting from the balcony in a foul humor to stop bothering us, damn it, we already bought everything we need. She had replaced Aunt Escolástica with so much fervor and so much grace that Fermina confused them to the point of loving her. She had the obsessions of a slave. Whenever she had free time she would go to the workroom to iron the linens; she kept them perfect, she kept them in cupboards with lavender, and she ironed and folded not only what she had just washed but also what might have lost its brightness through disuse. With the same care she continued to maintain the wardrobe of Fermina Sánchez, Fermina’s mother, who had died fourteen years before. But Fermina Daza was the one who made the decisions. She ordered what they would eat, what they would buy, what had to be done in every circumstance, and in that way she determined the life in a house where in reality nothing had to be determined. When she finished washing the cages and feeding the birds, and making certain that the flowers wanted for nothing, she was at a loss. Often, after she was expelled from school, she would fall asleep at siesta and not wake up until the next day. The painting classes were only a more amusing way to kill time.

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