Love in the Time of Cholera (Chapter 19)
Love in the Time of Cholera
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Her relationship with her father had lacked affection since the expulsion of Aunt Escolástica, although they had found the way to live together without bothering each other. When she awoke, he had already gone to his business. He rarely missed the ritual of lunch, although he almost never ate, for the aperitifs and Galician appetizers at the Parish Café satisfied him. He did not eat supper either: they left his meal on the table, everything on one plate covered by another, although they knew that he would not eat it until the next day when it was reheated for his breakfast. Once a week he gave his daughter money for expenses, which he calculated with care and she administered with rigor, but he listened with pleasure to any request she might make for unforeseen expenses. He never questioned a penny she spent, he never asked her for any explanations, but she behaved as if she had to make an accounting before the Tribunal of the Holy Office. He had never spoken to her about the nature or condition of his business, and he had never taken her to his offices in the port, which were in a location forbidden to decent young ladies even if accompanied by their fathers. Lorenzo Daza did not come home before ten o’clock at night, which was the curfew hour during the less critical periods of the wars. Until that time he would stay at the Parish Café, playing one game or another, for he was an expert in all salon games and a good teacher as well. He always came home sober, not disturbing his daughter, despite the fact that he had his first anisette when he awoke and continued chewing the end of his unlit cigar and drinking at regular intervals throughout the day. One night, however, Fermina heard him come in. She heard his cossack’s step on the stair, his heavy breathing in the second-floor hallway, his pounding with the flat of his hand on her bedroom door. She opened it, and for the first time she was frightened by his twisted eye and the slurring of his words.
“We are ruined,” he said. “Total ruin, so now you know.”
That was all he said, and he never said it again, and nothing happened to indicate whether he had told the truth, but after that night Fermina Daza knew that she was alone in the world. She lived in a social limbo. Her former schoolmates were in a heaven that was closed to her, above all after the dishonor of her expulsion, and she was not a neighbor to her neighbors, because they had known her without a past, in the uniform of the Academy of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin. Her father’s world was one of traders and stevedores, of war refugees in the public shelter of the Parish Café, of solitary men. In the last year the painting classes had alleviated her seclusion somewhat, for the teacher preferred group classes and would bring the other pupils to the sewing room. But they were girls of varying and undefined social circumstances, and for Fermina Daza they were no more than borrowed friends whose affection ended with each class. Hildebranda wanted to open the house, air it, bring in her father’s musicians and fireworks and castles of gunpowder, and have a Carnival dance whose gale winds would clear out her cousin’s moth-eaten spirit, but she soon realized that her proposals were to no avail, and for a very simple reason: there was no one to invite.
In any case, it was she who thrust Fermina Daza into life. In the afternoon, after the painting classes, she allowed herself to be taken out to see the city. Fermina Daza showed her the route she had taken every day with Aunt Escolástica, the bench in the little park where Florentino Ariza pretended to read while he waited for her, the narrow streets along which he followed her, the hiding places for their letters, the sinister palace where the prison of the Holy Office had been located, later restored and converted into the Academy of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin, which she hated with all her soul. They climbed the hill of the paupers’ cemetery, where Florentino Ariza played the violin according to the direction of the winds so that she could listen to him in bed, and from there they viewed the entire historic city, the broken roofs and the decaying walls, the rubble of fortresses among the brambles, the trail of islands in the bay, the hovels of the poor around the swamps, the immense Caribbean.
On Christmas Eve they went to Midnight Mass in the Cathedral. Fermina sat where she used to hear Florentino Ariza’s confidential music with greatest clarity, and she showed her cousin the exact spot where, on a night like this, she had seen his frightened eyes up close for the first time. They ventured alone as far as the Arcade of the Scribes, they bought sweets, they were amused in the shop that sold fancy paper, and Fermina Daza showed her cousin the place where she suddenly discovered that her love was nothing more than an illusion. She herself had not realized that every step she took from her house to school, every spot in the city, every moment of her recent past, did not seem to exist except by the grace of Florentino Ariza. Hildebranda pointed this out to her, but she did not admit it because she never would have admitted that Florentino Ariza, for better or for worse, was the only thing that had ever happened to her in her life.
It was during this time that a Belgian photographer came to the city and set up his studio at the end of the Arcade of the Scribes, and all those with the money to pay took advantage of the opportunity to have their pictures taken. Fermina and Hildebranda were among the first. They emptied Fermina Sanchez’s clothes closet, they shared the finest dresses, the parasols, the party shoes, the hats, and they dressed as midcentury ladies. Gala Placidia helped them lace up the corsets, she showed them how to move inside the wire frames of the hoop skirts, how to wear the gloves, how to button the high-heeled boots. Hildebranda preferred a broad-brimmed hat with ostrich feathers that hung down over her shoulder. Fermina wore a more recent model decorated with painted plaster fruit and crinoline flowers. At last they giggled when they looked in the mirror and saw the resemblance to the daguerreotypes of their grandmothers, and they went off happy, laughing for all they were worth, to have the photograph of their lives taken. Gala Placidia watched from the balcony as they crossed the park with their parasols open, tottering on their high heels and pushing against the hoop skirts with their bodies as if they were children’s walkers, and she gave them her blessing so that God would help them in their portraits.
There was a mob in front of the Belgian’s studio because photographs were being taken of Beny Centeno, who had won the boxing championship in Panama. He wore his boxing trunks and his boxing gloves and his crown, and it was not easy to photograph him because he had to hold a fighting stance for a whole minute and breathe as little as possible, but as soon as he put up his guard, his fans burst into cheers and he could not resist the temptation to please them by showing off his skill. When it was the cousins’ turn, the sky had clouded over and rain seemed imminent, but they allowed their faces to be powdered with starch and they leaned against an alabaster column with such ease that they remained motionless for more time than seemed reasonable. It was an immortal portrait. When Hildebranda died on her ranch at Flores de María, when she was almost one hundred years old, they found her copy locked in the bedroom closet, hidden among the folds of the perfumed sheets along with the fossil of a thought in a letter that had faded with time. For many years Fermina Daza kept hers on the first page of a family album, then it disappeared without anyone’s knowing how, or when, and came into the possession of Florentino Ariza, through a series of unbelievable coincidences, when they were both over sixty years old. When Fermina and Hildebranda came out of the Belgian’s studio, there were so many people in the plaza across from the Arcade of the
Scribes that even the balconies were crowded. They had forgotten that their faces were white with starch and that their lips were painted with a chocolate-colored salve and that their clothes were not appropriate to the time of day or the age. The street greeted them with catcalls and mockery. They were cornered, trying to escape public derision, when the landau drawn by the golden chestnuts opened a path through the crowd. The catcalls ceased and the hostile groups dispersed. Hildebranda was never to forget her first sight of the man who appeared on the footboard: his satin top hat, his brocaded vest, his knowing gestures, the sweetness in his eyes, the authority of his presence.
Although she had never seen him before, she recognized him immediately. The previous month, Fermina Daza had spoken about him, in an offhand way and with no sign of interest, one afternoon when she did not want to pass by the house of the Marquis de Casalduero because the landau with the golden horses was stopped in front of the door. She told her who the owner was and attempted to explain the reasons for her antipathy, although she did not say a word about his courting her. Hildebranda thought no more about him. But when she identified him as a vision out of legend, standing in the carriage door with one foot on the ground and the other on the footboard, she could not understand her cousin’s motives.
“Please get in,” said Dr. Juvenal Urbino. “I will take you wherever you want to go.” Fermina Daza began a gesture of refusal, but Hildebranda had already accepted. Dr. Juvenal Urbino jumped down, and with his fingertips, almost without touching her, he helped her into the carriage. Fermina had no alternative but to climb in after her, her face blazing with embarrassment.
The house was only three blocks away. The cousins did not realize that Dr. Urbino had given instructions to the coachman, but he must have done so, because it took the carriage almost half an hour to reach its destination. The girls were on the principal seat and he sat opposite them, facing, the back of the carriage. Fermina turned her head toward the window and was lost in the void. Hildebranda, on the other hand, was delighted, and Dr. Urbino was even more delighted by her delight. As soon as the carriage began to move, she sensed the warm odor of the leather seats, the intimacy of the padded interior, and she said that it seemed a nice place to spend the rest of one’s life. Very soon they began to laugh, to exchange jokes as if they were old friends, and they began to match wits in a simple word game that consisted of placing a nonsense syllable after every other syllable. They pretended that Fermina did not understand them, although they knew she not only understood but was listening as well, which is why they did it. After much laughter, Hildebranda confessed that she could no longer endure the torture of her boots.
“Nothing could be simpler,” said Dr. Urbino. “Let us see who finishes first.”
He began to unlace his own boots, and Hildebranda accepted the challenge. It was not easy for her to do because the stays in the corset did not allow her to bend, but Dr. Urbino dallied until she took her boots out from under her skirt with a triumphant laugh, as if she had just fished them out of a pond. Then both of them looked at Fermina and saw her magnificent golden oriole’s profile sharper than ever against the blaze of the setting sun. She was furious for three reasons: because of the undeserved situation in which she found herself, because of Hildebranda’s libertine behavior, and because she was certain that the carriage was driving in circles in order to postpone their arrival. But Hildebranda had lost all restraint.
“Now I realize,” she said, “that what bothered me was not my shoes but this wire cage.”
Dr. Urbino understood that she was referring to her hoop skirt, and he seized the opportunity as it flew by. “Nothing could be simpler,” he said. “Take it off.” With the rapid movements of a prestidigitator, he removed his handkerchief from his pocket and covered his eyes with it.
“I won’t look,” he said.
The blindfold emphasized the purity of his lips surrounded by his round black beard and his mustache with the waxed tips, and she felt herself shaken by a sudden surge of panic. She looked at Fermina, and now she saw that she was not furious but terrified that she might be capable of taking off her skirt. Hildebranda became serious and asked her in sign language: “What shall we do?” Fermina answered in the same code that if they did not go straight home she would throw herself out of the moving carriage.
“I am waiting,” said the Doctor.
“You can look now,” said Hildebranda.
When Dr. Juvenal Urbino removed the blindfold he found her changed, and he understood that the game had ended, and had not ended well. At a sign from him, the coachman turned the carriage around and drove into the Park of the Evangels, just as the lamplighter was making his rounds. All the churches were ringing the Angelus. Hildebranda hurried out of the carriage, somewhat disturbed at the idea that she had offended her cousin, and she said goodbye to the Doctor with a perfunctory handshake. Fermina did the same, but when she tried to withdraw her hand in its satin glove, Dr. Urbino squeezed her ring finger.
“I am waiting for your answer,” he said.
Then Fermina pulled harder and her empty glove was left dangling in the Doctor’s hand, but she did not wait to retrieve it. She went to bed without eating. Hildebranda, as if nothing had happened, came into the bedroom after her supper with Gala Placidia in the kitchen, and with her inborn wit, commented on the events of the afternoon. She did not attempt to hide her enthusiasm for Dr. Urbino, for his elegance and charm, and Fermina refused to comment, but was brimming with anger. At one point Hildebranda confessed that when Dr. Juvenal Urbino covered his eyes and she saw the splendor of his perfect teeth between his rosy lips, she had felt an irresistible desire to devour him with kisses. Fermina Daza turned to the wall and with no wish to offend, but smiling and with all her heart, put an end to the conversation:
“What a whore you are!” she said.
Her sleep was restless; she saw Dr. Juvenal Urbino everywhere, she saw him laughing,
singing, emitting sulfurous sparks from between his teeth with his eyes blindfolded, mocking her with a word game that had no fixed rules, driving up to the paupers’ cemetery in a different carriage. She awoke long before dawn and lay exhausted and wakeful, with her eyes closed, thinking of the countless years she still had to live. Later, while Hildebranda was bathing, she wrote a letter as quickly as possible, folded it as quickly as possible, put it in an envelope as quickly as possible, and before Hildebranda came out of the bathroom she had Gala Placidia deliver it to Dr. Juvenal Urbino. It was one of her typical
letters, not a syllable too many or too few, in which she told the Doctor yes, he could speak to her father.
When Florentino Ariza learned that Fermina Daza was going to marry a physician with family and fortune, educated in Europe and with an extraordinary reputation for a man of his years, there was no power on earth that could raise him from his prostration. Tránsito Ariza did all she could and more, using all the stratagems of a sweetheart to console him when she realized that he had lost his speech and his appetite and was spending nights on end in constant weeping, and by the end of the week he was eating again. Then she spoke to Don Leo XII Loayza, the only one of the three brothers who was still alive, and without telling him the reason, she pleaded with him to give his nephew any job at all in the navigation company, as long as it was in a port lost in the jungle of the Magdalena, where there was no mail and no telegraph and no one who would tell him anything about this damnable city. His uncle did not give him the job out of deference to his brother’s widow, for she could not bear the very existence of her husband’s illegitimate son, but he did find him employment as a telegraph operator in Villa de Leyva, a dreamy city more than twenty days’ journey away and almost three thousand meters above the level of the Street of Windows.
Florentino Ariza was never very conscious of that curative journey. He would remember it always, as he remembered everything that happened during that period, through the rarefied lenses of his misfortune. When he received the telegram informing him of his appointment, it did not even occur to him to consider it, but Lotario Thugut convinced him with Germanic arguments that a brilliant career awaited him in public administration. He told him: “The telegraph is
the profession of the future.” He gave him a pair of gloves lined with rabbit fur, a hat worthy of the steppes, and an overcoat with a plush collar, tried and proven in the icy winters of Bavaria. Uncle Leo XII gave him two serge suits and a pair of waterproof boots that had belonged to his older brother, and he also gave him cabin passage on the next boat. Tránsito Ariza altered the clothing and made it smaller for her son, who was less corpulent than his father and much shorter than the German, and she bought him woolen socks and long underwear so that he would have everything he needed to resist the rigors of the mountain wastelands. Florentino Ariza, hardened by so much suffering, attended to the preparations for his journey as if he were a dead man attending to the preparations for his own funeral. The same iron hermeticism with which he had revealed to no one but his mother the secret of his repressed passion meant that he did not tell anyone he was going away and did not say goodbye to anyone, but on the eve of his departure he committed, with full awareness, a final mad act of the heart that might well have cost him his life. At midnight he put on his Sunday suit and went to stand alone under Fermina Daza’s balcony to play the love waltz he had composed for her, which was known only to the two of them and which for three years had been the emblem of their frustrated complicity. He played, murmuring the words, his violin bathed in tears, with an inspiration so intense that with the first measures the dogs on the street and then the dogs all over the city began to howl, but then, little by little, they were quieted by the spell of the music, and the waltz ended in supernatural silence. The balcony did not open, and no one appeared on the street, not even the night watchman, who almost always came running with his oil lamp in an effort to profit in some small way from serenades. The act was an exorcism of relief for Florentino Ariza, for when he put the violin back into its case and walked down the dead streets without looking back, he no longer felt that he was leaving the next morning but that he had gone away many years before with the irrevocable determination never to return.