Love in the Time of Cholera (Chapter 46)

Love in the Time of Cholera 

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Chapter 46

The memory of the past did not redeem the future, as he insisted on believing. On the contrary, it strengthened the conviction that Fermina Daza had always had, that the feverish excitement of twenty had been something very noble, very beautiful, but it had not been love. Despite her rough honesty she did not intend to disclose that to him, either by mail or in person, nor did she have it in her heart to tell him how false the sentimentalities of his letters sounded after the miraculous consolation of his written meditations, how his lyrical lies cheapened him, how detrimental his maniacal insistence on recapturing the past was to his cause. No: not one line of his letters of long ago, not a single moment of her own despised youth, had made her feel that Tuesday afternoons without him could be as tedious, as lonely, and as repetitious as they really were.
In one of her attacks of simplification, she had relegated to the stables the radioconsole that her husband had given her as an anniversary gift, and which both of them had intended to present to the Museum as the first in the city. In the gloom of her mourning she had resolved not to use it again, for a widow bearing her family names could not listen to any kind of music without offending the memory of the dead, even if she did so in private. But after her third solitary Tuesday she had it brought back to the drawing room, not to enjoy the sentimental song on the Riobamba station, as she had done before, but to fill her idle hours with the soap operas from Santiago de Cuba. It was a good idea, for after the birth of her daughter she had begun to lose the habit of reading that her husband had inculcated with so much diligence ever since their honeymoon, and with the progressive fatigue of her eyes she had stopped altogether, so that months would go by without her knowing where she had left her reading glasses.

She took such a liking to the soap operas from Santiago de Cuba that she waited with impatience for each day’s new episode. From time to time she listened to the news to find out what was going on in the world, and on the few occasions when she was alone in the house she would turn the volume very low and listen to distant, clear merengues from Santo Domingo and plenas from Puerto Rico. One night, on an unknown station that suddenly came in as strong and clear as if it were next door, she heard heartbreaking news: an elderly couple, who for forty years had been repeating their honeymoon every year in the same spot, had been murdered, bludgeoned to death with oars by the skipper of the boat they were riding in, who then robbed them of all the money they were carrying: fourteen dollars. The effect on her was even more devastating when Lucrecia del Real told her the complete story, which had been published in a local newspaper. The police had discovered that the elderly couple beaten to death were clandestine lovers who had taken their vacations together for forty years, but who each had a stable and happy marriage as well as very large families. Fermina Daza, who never cried over the soap operas on the radio, had to hold back the knot of tears that choked her. In his next letter, without any comment, Florentino Ariza sent her the news item that he had cut out of the paper.

These were not the last tears that Fermina Daza was going to hold back. Florentino Ariza had not yet finished his sixty days of seclusion when Justice published a front-page story, complete with photographs of the two protagonists, about the alleged secret love affair between Dr. Juvenal Urbino and Lucrecia del Real del Obispo. There was speculation on the details of their relationship, the frequency of their meetings and how they were arranged, and the complicity of her husband, who was given to excesses of sodomy with the blacks on his sugar plantation. The story, published in enormous block letters in an ink the color of blood, fell like a thundering cataclysm on the enfeebled local aristocracy. Not a line of it was true: Juvenal Urbino and Lucrecia del Real had been close friends in the days when they were both single, and they had continued their friendship after their marriages, but they had never been lovers. In any case, it did not seem that the purpose of the story was to sully the name of Dr. Juvenal Urbino, whose memory enjoyed universal respect, but to injure the husband of Lucrecia del Real, who had been elected President of the Social Club the week before. The scandalous story was suppressed in a few hours. But Lucrecia del Real did not visit Fermina Daza again, and Fermina Daza interpreted this as a confession of guilt.

It was soon obvious, however, that Fermina Daza was not immune to the hazards of her class. Justice attacked her one weak flank: her father’s business. When he was forced into exile, she knew of only one instance of his shady dealings, which had been told to her by Gala Placidia. Later, when Dr. Urbino confirmed the story after his interview with the Governor, she was convinced that her father had been the victim of slander. The facts were that two government agents had come to the house on the Park of the Evangels with a warrant, searched it from top to bottom without finding what they were looking for, and at last ordered the wardrobe with the mirrored doors in Fermina Daza’s old bedroom to be opened. Gala Placidia, who was alone in the house and lacked the means to stop anyone from doing anything, refused to open it, with the excuse that she did not have the keys. Then one of the agents broke the mirror on the door with the butt of his revolver and found the space between the glass and the wood stuffed with counterfeit hundreddollar bills. This was the last in a chain of clues that led to Lorenzo Daza as the final link in a vast international operation. It was a masterful fraud, for the bills had the watermarks of the original paper: one-dollar bills had been erased by a chemical process that seemed to be magic, and reprinted as hundred-dollar notes. Lorenzo Daza claimed that the wardrobe had been purchased long after his daughter’s wedding, and that it must have come into the house with the bills already in it, but the police proved that it had been there since the days when Fermina Daza had been in school. He was the only one who could have hidden the counterfeit fortune behind the mirrors. This was all Dr. Urbino told his wife when he promised the Governor that he would send his father-in-law back to his own country in order to cover up the scandal. But the newspaper told much more.

It said that during one of the many civil wars of the last century, Lorenzo Daza had been the intermediary between the government of the Liberal President Aquileo Parra and one Joseph T. K. Korzeniowski, a native of Poland and a member of the crew of the merchant ship Saint Antoine, sailing under the French flag, who had spent several months here trying to conclude a complicated arms deal. Korzeniowski, who later became famous as Joseph Conrad, made contact somehow with Lorenzo Daza, who bought the shipment of arms from him on behalf of the government, with his credentials and his receipts in order and the purchase price in gold. According to the story in the newspaper, Lorenzo Daza claimed that the arms had been stolen in an improbable raid, and then he sold them again, for twice their value, to the Conservatives who were at war with the government.

Justice also said that at the time that General Rafael Reyes founded the navy, Lorenzo Daza bought a shipment of surplus boots at a very low price from the English army, and with that one deal he doubled his fortune in six months. According to the newspaper, when the shipment reached this port, Lorenzo Daza refused to accept it because it contained only boots for the right foot, but he was the sole bidder when Customs auctioned it according to the law, and he bought it for the token sum of one hundred pesos. At the same time, under similar circumstances, an accomplice purchased the shipment of boots for the left foot that had reached Riohacha. Once they were in pairs, Lorenzo Daza took advantage of his relationship by marriage to the Urbino de la Calle family and sold the boots to the new navy at a profit of two thousand percent.
The story in Justice concluded by saying that Lorenzo Daza did not leave San Juan de la Ciénaga at the end of the last century in search of better opportunities for his daughter’s future, as he liked to say, but because he had been found out in his prosperous business of adulterating imported tobacco with shredded paper, which he did with so much skill that not even the most sophisticated smokers noticed the deception. They also uncovered his links to a clandestine international enterprise whose most profitable business at the end of the last century had been the illegal smuggling of Chinese from Panama. On the other hand, his suspect mule trading, which had done so much harm to his reputation, seemed to be the only honest business he had ever engaged in.

When Florentino Ariza left his bed, with his back on fire and carrying a walking stick for the first time instead of his umbrella, his first excursion was to Fermina Daza’s house. She was like a stranger, ravaged by age, whose resentment had destroyed her desire to live. Dr. Urbino Daza, in the two visits he had made to Florentino Ariza during his exile, had spoken to him of how disturbed his mother was by the two stories in Justice. The first provoked her to such irrational anger at her husband’s infidelity and her friend’s disloyalty that she renounced the custom of visiting the family mausoleum one Sunday each month, for it infuriated her that he, inside his coffin, could not hear the insults she wanted to shout at him: she had a quarrel with a dead man. She let Lucrecia del Real know, through anyone who would repeat it to her, that she should take comfort in having had at least one real man in the crowd of people who had passed through her bed. As for the story about Lorenzo Daza, there was no way to know which affected her more, the story itself or her belated discovery of her father’s true character. But one or the other, or both, had annihilated her. Her hair, the color of stainless steel, had ennobled her face, but now it looked like ragged yellow strands of corn silk, and her beautiful panther eyes did not recover their old sparkle even in the brilliant heat of her anger. Her decision not to go on living was evident in every gesture. She had long ago given up smoking, whether locked in the bathroom or anywhere else, but she took it up again, for the first time in public, and with an uncontrolled voracity, at first with cigarettes she rolled herself, as she had always liked to do, and then with ordinary ones sold in stores because she no longer had time or patience to do it herself. Anyone else would have asked himself what the future could hold for a lame old man whose back burned with a burro’s saddle sores and a woman who longed for no other happiness but death. But not Florentino Ariza. He found a glimmer of hope in the ruins of disaster, for it seemed to him that Fermina Daza’s misfortune glorified her, that her anger beautified her, and that her rancor with the world had given her back the untamed character she had displayed at the age of twenty.

She had new reasons for being grateful to Florentino Ariza, because in response to the infamous stories, he had written Justice an exemplary letter concerning the ethical responsibilities of the press and respect for other people’s honor. They did not publish it, but the author sent a copy to the Commercial Daily, the oldest and most serious newspaper along the Caribbean coast, which featured the letter on the front page. Signed with the pseudonym “Jupiter,” it was so reasoned, incisive, and well written that it was attributed to some of the most notable writers in the province. It was a lone voice in the middle of the ocean, but it was heard at great depth and great distance. Fermina Daza knew who the author was without having to be told, because she recognized some of the ideas and even a sentence taken directly from Florentino Ariza’s moral reflections. And so she received him with renewed affection in the disarray of her solitude. It was at this time that América Vicuña found herself alone one Saturday afternoon in the bedroom on the Street of Windows, and without looking for them, by sheer accident, she found the typed copies of the meditations of Florentino Ariza and the handwritten letters of Fermina Daza, in a wardrobe without a key.

Dr. Urbino Daza was happy about the resumption of the visits that gave so much encouragement to his mother. But Ofelia, his sister, came from New Orleans on the first fruit boat as soon as she heard that Fermina Daza had a strange friendship with a man whose moral qualifications were not the best. Her alarm grew to critical proportions during the first week, when she became aware of the familiarity and self-possession with which Florentino Ariza came into the house, and the whispers and fleeting lovers’ quarrels that filled their visits until all hours of the night. What for Dr. Urbino Daza was a healthy affection between two lonely old people was for her a vice-ridden form of secret concubinage. Ofelia Urbino had always been like that, resembling Doña Blanca, her paternal grandmother, more than if she had been her daughter. Like her she was distinguished, like her she was arrogant, and like her she lived at the mercy of her prejudices. Even at the age of five she had been incapable of imagining an innocent friendship between a man and a woman, least of all when they were eighty years old. In a bitter argument with her brother, she said that all Florentino Ariza needed to do to complete his consolation of their mother was to climb into her widow’s bed. Dr. Urbino Daza did not have the courage to face her, he had never had the courage to face her, but his wife intervened with a serene justification of love at any age. Ofelia lost her temper. “Love is ridiculous at our age,” she shouted, “but at theirs it is revolting.”

She insisted with so much vehemence on her determination to drive Florentino Ariza out of the house that it reached Fermina Daza’s ears. She called her to her bedroom, as she always did when she wanted to talk without being heard by the servants, and she asked her to repeat her accusations. Ofelia did not soften them: she was certain that Florentino Ariza, whose reputation as a pervert was known to everyone, was carrying on an equivocal relationship that did more harm to the family’s good name than the villainies of Lorenzo Daza or the ingenuous adventures of Juvenal Urbino. Fermina Daza listened to her without saying a word, without even blinking, but when she finished, Fermina Daza was another person: she had come back to life. “The only thing that hurts me is that I do not have the strength to give you the beating you deserve for being insolent and evil-minded,” she said. “But you will leave this house right now, and I swear to you on my mother’s grave that you will not set foot in it again as long as I live.”

There was no power that could dissuade her. Ofelia went to live in her brother’s house, and from there she sent all kinds of petitions with distinguished emissaries. But it was in vain. Neither the mediation of her son nor the intervention of her friends could break Fermina Daza’s resolve. At last, in the colorful language of her better days, she allowed herself to confide in her daughter-in-law, with whom she had always maintained a certain plebeian camaraderie. “A century ago, life screwed that poor man and me because we were too young, and now they want to do the same thing because we are too old.” She lit a cigarette with the end of the one she was smoking, and then she gave vent to all the poison that was gnawing at her insides.

“They can all go to hell,” she said. “If we widows have any advantage, it is that there is no one left to give us orders.”

There was nothing to be done. When at last she was convinced that she had no more options, Ofelia returned to New Orleans. After much pleading, her mother would only agree to say goodbye to her, but she would not allow her in the house: she had sworn on her mother’s grave, and for her, during those dark days, that was the only thing left that was still pure.

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