Love in the Time of Cholera (Chapter 33)

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Love in the Time of Cholera

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Chapter 33

When he saw Fermina Daza she was almost always on her husband’s arm, the two of them in perfect harmony, moving through their own space with the astonishing fluidity of Siamese cats, which was broken only when they stopped to greet him. Dr. Juvenal Urbino, in fact, shook his hand with warm cordiality, and on occasion even permitted himself a pat on the shoulder. She, on the other hand, kept him relegated to an impersonal regime of formalities and never made the slightest gesture that might allow him to suspect that she remembered him from her unmarried days. They lived in two different worlds, but while he made every effort to reduce the distance between them, every step she took was in the opposite direction. It was a long time before he dared to think that her indifference was no more than a shield for her timidity. This occurred to him suddenly, at the christening of the first freshwater vessel built in the local shipyards, which was also the first official occasion at which Florentino Ariza, as First Vice President of the R.C.C., represented Uncle Leo XII. This coincidence imbued the ceremony with special solemnity, and everyone of any significance in the life of the city was present. Florentino Ariza was looking after his guests in the main salon of the ship, still redolent of fresh paint and tar, when there was a burst of applause on the docks, and the band struck up a triumphal march. He had to repress the trembling that was almost as old as he was when he saw the beautiful woman of his dreams on her husband’s arm, splendid in her maturity, striding like a queen from another time past the honor guard in parade uniform, under the shower of paper streamers and flower petals tossed at them from the windows. Both responded to the ovation with a wave of the hand, but she was so dazzling, dressed in imperial gold from her high-heeled slippers and the foxtails at her throat to her bell-shaped hat, that she seemed to be alone in the midst of the crowd.

Florentino Ariza waited for them on the bridge with the provincial officials, surrounded by the crash of the music and the fireworks and the three heavy screams from the ship, which enveloped the dock in steam. Juvenal Urbino greeted the members of the reception line with that naturalness so typical of him, which made everyone think the Doctor bore him a special fondness: first the ship’s captain in his dress uniform, then the Archbishop, then the Governor with his and the Mayor with his, and then the military commander, who was anewcomer from the Andes. Beyond the officials stood Florentino Ariza, dressed in dark clothing and almost invisible among so many eminent people. After greeting the military commander, Fermina seemed to hesitate before Florentino Ariza’s outstretched hand. The military man, prepared to introduce them, asked her if they did not know each other. She did not say yes and she did not say no, but she held out her hand to Florentino Ariza with a salon smile. The same thing had occurred twice in the past, and would occur again, and Florentino Ariza always accepted these occasions with a strength of character worthy of Fermina Daza. But that afternoon he asked himself, with his infinite capacity for illusion, if such pitiless indifference might not be a subterfuge for hiding the torments of love.

The mere idea excited his youthful desires. Once again he haunted Fermina Daza’s villa, filled with the same longings he had felt when he was on duty in the little Park of the Evangels, but his calculated intention was not that she see him, but rather that he see her and know that she was still in the world. Now, however, it was difficult for him to escape notice. The District of La Manga was on a semi-deserted island, separated from the historic city by a canal of green water and covered by thickets of icaco plum, which had sheltered Sunday lovers in colonial times. In recent years, the old stone bridge built by the Spaniards had been torn down, and in its stead was one made of brick and lined with streetlamps for the new mule-drawn trolleys. At first the residents of La Manga had to endure a torture that had not been anticipated during construction, which was sleeping so close to the city’s first electrical plant whose vibration was a constant earthquake. Not even Dr. Juvenal Urbino, with all his prestige, could persuade them to move it where it would not disturb anyone, until his proven complicity with Divine Providence interceded on his behalf. One night the boiler in the plant blew up in a fearful explosion, flew over the new houses, sailed across half the city, and destroyed the largest gallery in the former convent of St. Julian the Hospitaler. The old ruined building had been abandoned at the beginning of the year, but the boiler caused the deaths of four prisoners who had escaped from the local jail earlier that night and were hiding in the chapel.

The peaceful suburb with its beautiful tradition of love was, however, not the most propitious for unrequited love when it became a luxury neighborhood. The streets were dusty in summer, swamp-like in winter, and desolate all year round, and the scattered houses were hidden behind leafy gardens and had mosaic tile terraces instead of oldfashioned projecting balconies, as if they had been built for the purpose of discouraging furtive lovers. It was just as well that at this time it became fashionable to drive out in the afternoon in hired old Victorias that had been converted to one-horse carriages, and that the excursion ended on a hill where one could appreciate the heartbreaking twilights of October better than from the lighthouse, and observe the watchful sharks lurking at the seminarians’ beach, and see the Thursday ocean liner, huge and white, that could almost be touched with one’s hands as it passed through the harbor channel. Florentino Ariza would hire a Victoria after a hard day at the office, but instead of folding down the top, as was customary during the hot months, he would stay hidden in the depths of the seat, invisible in the darkness, always alone, and requesting unexpected routes so as not to arouse the evil thoughts of the driver. In reality, the only thing that interested him on the drive was the pink marble Parthenon half hidden among leafy banana and mango trees, a luckless replica of the idyllic mansions on Louisiana cotton plantations. Fermina Daza’s children returned home a little before five. Florentino Ariza would see them arrive in the family carriage, and then he would see Dr. Juvenal Urbino leave for his routine house calls, but in almost a year of vigilance he never even caught the glimpse he so desired.

One afternoon when he insisted on his solitary drive despite the first devastating rains of June, the horse slipped and fell in the mud. Florentino Ariza realized with horror that they were just in front of Fermina Daza’s villa, and he pleaded with the driver, not thinking that his consternation might betray him.

“Not here, please,” he shouted. “Anywhere but here.”

Bewildered by his urgency, the driver tried to raise the horse without unharnessing him, and the axle of the carriage broke. Florentino Ariza managed to climb out of the coach in the driving rain and endure his embarrassment until passersby in other carriages offered to take him home. While he was waiting, a servant of the Urbino family “ad seen him, his clothes soaked through, standing in mud up to his Knees, and she brought him an umbrella so that he could take refuge on the terrace. In the wildest of his deliriums Florentino Ariza had never dreamed of such good fortune, but on that afternoon he would have died rather than allow Fermina Daza to see him in that condition. When they lived in the old city, Juvenal Urbino and his family would walk on Sundays from their house to the Cathedral for eight o’clock Mass, which for them was more a secular ceremony than a religious one. Then, when they moved, they continued to drive there for several years, and at times they visited with friends under the palm trees in the park. But when the temple of the theological seminary was built in La Manga, with a private beach and its own cemetery, they no longer went to the Cathedral except on very solemn occasions. Ignorant of these changes, Florentino Ariza waited Sunday after Sunday on the terrace of the Parish Café, watching the people coming out of all three Masses. Then he realized his mistake and went to the new church, which was fashionable until just a few years ago, and there, at eight o’clock sharp on four Sundays in August, he saw Dr. Juvenal Urbino with his children, but Fermina Daza was not with them. On one of those Sundays he visited the new cemetery adjacent to the church, where the residents of La Manga were building their sumptuous pantheons, and his heart skipped a beat when he discovered the most sumptuous of all in the shade of the great ceiba trees. It was already complete, with Gothic stained-glass windows and marble angels and gravestones with gold lettering for the entire family. Among them, of course, was that of Doña Fermina Daza de Urbino de la Calle, and next to it her husband’s, with a common epitaph: Together still in the peace of the Lord.

For the rest of the year, Fermina Daza did not attend any civic or social ceremonies, not even the Christmas celebrations, in which she and her husband had always been illustrious protagonists. But her absence was most notable on the opening night of the opera season. During intermission, Florentino Ariza happened on a group that, beyond any doubt, was discussing her without mentioning her name. They said that one midnight the previous June someone had seen her boarding the Cunard ocean liner en route to Panama, and that she wore a dark veil to hide the ravages of the shameful disease that was consuming her. Someone asked what terrible illness would dare to attack a woman with so much power, and the answer he received was saturated with black bile:

“A lady so distinguished could suffer only from consumption.” Florentino Ariza knew that the wealthy of his country did not contract short-term diseases. Either they died without warning, almost always on the eve of a major holiday that could not be celebrated because of the period of mourning, or they faded away in long, abominable illnesses whose most intimate details eventually became public knowledge. Seclusion in Panama was almost an obligatory penance in the life of the rich.
They submitted to God’s will in the Adventist Hospital, an immense white warehouse lost in the prehistoric downpours of Darién, where the sick lost track of the little life that was left to them, and in whose solitary rooms with their burlap windows no one could tell with certainty if the smell of carbolic acid was the odor of health or of death. Those who recovered came back bearing splendid gifts that they would distribute with a free hand and a kind of agonized longing to be pardoned for their indiscretion in still being alive. Some returned with their abdomens crisscrossed by barbarous stitches that seemed to have been sewn with cobbler’s hemp; they would raise their shirts to display them when people came to visit, they compared them with those of others who had suffocated from excesses of joy, and for the rest of their days they would describe and describe again the angelic visions they had seen under the influence of chloroform. On the other hand, no one ever learned about the visions of those who did not return, including the saddest of them all: those who had died as exiles in the tuberculosis pavilion, more from the sadness of the rain than because of the complications of their disease.

If he had been forced to choose, Florentino Ariza did not know which fate he would have wanted for Fermina Daza. More than anything else he wanted the truth, but no matter how unbearable, and regardless of how he searched, he could not find it. It was inconceivable to him that no one could even give him a hint that would confirm the story he had heard. In the world of riverboats, which was his world, no mystery could be maintained, no secret could be kept. And yet no one had heard anything about the woman in the black veil. No one knew anything in a city where everything was known, and where many things were known even before they happened, above all if they concerned the rich. But no one had any explanation for the disappearance of Fermina Daza. Florentino Ariza continued to patrol La Manga, continued to hear Mass without devotion in the basilica of the seminary, continued to attend civic ceremonies that never would have interested him in another state of mind, but the passage of time only increased the credibility of the story he had heard. Everything seemed normal in the Urbino household, except for the mother’s absence.

As he carried on his investigation, he learned about other events he had not known of or into which he had made no inquiries, including the death of Lorenzo Daza in the Cantabrian village where he had been born. He remembered seeing him for many years in the rowdy chess wars at the Parish Café, hoarse with so much talking, and growing fatter and rougher as he sank into the quicksand of an unfortunate old age. They had never exchanged another word since their disagreeable breakfast of anise in the previous century, and Florentino Ariza was certain that even after he had obtained for his daughter the successful marriage that had become his only reason for living, Lorenzo Daza remembered him with as much rancor as he felt toward Lorenzo Daza. But he was so determined to find out the unequivocal facts regarding Fermina Daza’s health that he returned to the Parish Café to learn them from her father, just at the time of the historic tournament in which Jeremiah de Saint-Amour alone confronted forty-two opponents. This was how he discovered that Lorenzo Daza had died, and he rejoiced with all his heart, although the price of his joy might be having to live without the truth. At last he accepted as true the story of the hospital for the terminally ill, and his only consolation was the old saying: Sick women live forever. On the days when he felt disheartened, he resigned himself to the notion that the news of Fermina Daza’s death, if it should occur, would find him without his having to look for it.

It never did, for Fermina Daza was alive and well on the ranch, half a league from the village of Flores de María, where her Cousin Hildebranda Sánchez was living, forgotten by the world. She had left with no scandal, by mutual agreement with her husband, both of them as entangled as adolescents in the only serious crisis they had suffered during so many years of stable matrimony. It had taken them by surprise in the repose of their maturity, when they felt themselves safe from misfortune’s sneak attacks, their children grown and well-behaved, and the future ready for them to learn how to be old without bitterness. It had been something so unexpected for them both that they wanted to resolve it not with shouts, tears, and intermediaries, as was the custom in the Caribbean, but with the wisdom of the nations of Europe, and there was so much vacillation as to whether their loyalties lay here or over there that they ended up mired in a puerile situation that did not belong anywhere. At last she decided to leave, not even knowing why or to what purpose, out of sheer fury, and he, inhibited by his sense of guilt, had not been able to dissuade her.

Fermina Daza, in fact, had sailed at midnight in the greatest secrecy and with her face covered by a black mantilla, not on a Cunard liner bound for Panama, however, but on the regular boat to San Juan de la Ciénaga, the city where she had been born and had lived until her adolescence, and for which she felt a growing homesickness that became more and more difficult to bear as the years went by. In defiance of her husband’s will, and of the customs of the day, her only companion was a fifteen-year-old goddaughter who had been raised as a family servant, but the ship captains and the officials at each port had been notified of her journey. When she made her rash decision, she told her children that she was going to have a change of scene for three months or so with Aunt Hildebranda, but her determination was not to return. Dr. Juvenal Urbino knew the strength of her character very well, and he was so troubled that he accepted her decision with humility as God’s punishment for the gravity of his sins. But the lights on the boat had not yet been lost to view when they both repented of their weakness.

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