By Rufino Blanco-Fombola
This translation apperared in International Short Stories 1900
BLANCO-FOMBONA was born at Caracas, in Venezuela, in 1874. He comes of an old and aristocratic family of Spanish descent. His extraordinary activities, not only as a writer, but as politician, revolutionary soldier, and government employee, together with his picturesque personal exploits, have all contributed to make him one of the most interesting figures in Spanish-America. He has travelled in many parts of the world. His writings include criticism, poetry, political essays, novels, and short stories, the first collection of which appeared in 1900. Of Creole Democracy, perhaps his finest short story, Dr. Goldberg has said that "not many tales that have come out of South America can match it." The present version, revised from an earlier version, is here printed by permission of the translator, Isaac Goldberg.
The hamlet of Camoruco stands at one of the gateways to the Plains. The wagon-road cuts the little settlement squarely and neatly in two, like the parting of a dandy's hair. Stretched out upon the savanna, the village consists of two rows of houses which stand in a file along the edge of the road, and seem to peer furtively upon the passer-by. They look like a double row of sparrows upon two parallel telegraph wires. Close by flows the Guarico, an abundant stream that irrigates the pampas; in its sands slumbers the skate-fish and on its banks, with half -open jaws, the laey alligators take their noonday rest.
It was election time; a governor of the Department was to be chosen. For certain political reasons the interest of an appreciable part of the Republic was centered upon the contest. El Faro (The Lighthouse), a backwoods sheet which had been established for the occasion, declared in its opening number: "Perhaps for the first time in Camoruco, the elections will cease to be the work of a group of petty politicians, mere vote manufacturers; perhaps for the first time in Camoruco the elective fabric will be woven by the unsullied hands of the people."
The number of candidates had dwindled to two. On the eve of the election the local bosses, wealthy cattle-breeders of the district, brought into the neighboring town, which served as a business center for the shacks of the outlying settlements, herds of peons, submissive farm hands, good, simple plainsmen, ignorant of everything, even of what they were to do in the next day's election; for these peons, rounded up like cattle, were the citizens, that is to say, the voters. The apparel of most of them consisted of drill trousers and striped shirts; on their feet, hempen sandals; on their heads, the high-crowned, wide-brimmed sombrero, or the saffron-colored gelo de guama; around their waists, slung diagonally like a baldric, the red and blue sash; in their right hands, like a cane, they carried the peasant weapon, the ever-present machete. A goodly number of these simple citizens were of medium height, muscular, bronzed by the sun and by their mixed blood, and recalled the classic plainsmen of Apure and Arauca, those terrible centaurs of General Paez, in the armies of Bolivar, those mighty warriors who captured the Spanish war vessels on horseback, at the point of the lance, and of whom a hundred and fifty attacked six thousand of Morillo's soldiers, as in the Queseras del Medio, those heroes of the pampas who live in history, on canvas, in ballads, in epic, and above all, in the popular imagination. "
The parties concerned in the election, like the candidates, were two. The efforts of the party-leaders were directed towards herding the largest possible number of men. Each faction in Camoruco was quartered in its own district; one to the north, the other to the south of the village. As new groups of peons continued to arrive, the bosses of each side would spy upon each other to see how many voters were being added to their rival's forces. "See here," they would say to some trusted farm hand, "go and take a look at those dunderheads." Meanwhile party-hacks were going from group to group, explaining the procedure of the morrow's election. But despite all explanations, the simple rustics displayed a certain suspiciousness. Many believed that plans for an armed uprising were afoot. In one of the groups, particularly, a feeling of mistrust grew apace. Wild talk arose. "Elections!" scoffed one vaguer o, as chubby and brown as a sausage. "Before long we'll be hearing Pum! Pum! and then, ho, for stabbing hides!"
To this bit of grim humor in the face of possible tragedy another vaquero added: “Yes. Soon we'll be hearing 'Two shots, boys, then out with your machetes?"
This was a slogan familiar to everybody, and many smiled bitterly at the memories it awoke. "Two shots, boys, then out with your machetes" This was the cry of the revolutionary officers in time of battle, for, lacking ammunition as they generally did, the method of the rebels was to fire one or two rounds and then charge upon the enemy battalions with their naked blades. The government mausers, however, would always wreak swift vengeance and in a few minutes the battlefield would be heaped with the corpses of the insurgents. But the few who succeeded in reaching the soldiers alive would avenge their fallen comrades, for in a hand-to-hand struggle a heavy gun is a hindrance rather than a help and against the furious machete neither the bayonet nor anything else can avail. One must then choose between death or flight.
"What I don't like about all this business," declared one of the peons, "is that they don't tell a fellow the truth. If we're going to war, let's go; but let them not hide it from us."
All agreed that the complaint was justified. If they knew the truth they could at least bid farewell to their wives, their children, their mothers.
"They take us for hens."
"No, not for hens, but for chattering magpies."
"That's right. They're not afraid that we'll run off into hiding like so many hens or women, but that we'll squeal on them, that we'll betray the uprising and inform the commissary or the magistrate."
Then an old, experienced mulatto, with a grayish head and a forehead furrowed by a deep scar, began to quell the dissension. "That's the way those things are done, boys. In '92, when we started a revolt in Totum under General Crespo . . ." And he plunged into his memories of army life. They all listened to him with pleasure, for the old plainsman, in his way and for his kind, was a true causeur. In the midst of the reminiscences one of the party-leaders called from a distance to the talkative old fellow, "Hey, Ramon, old boy!"
Old Ramon, before answering, tried to finish his tale by cutting it short. But the boss called again: "Ramon, old boy, come here!" For he wanted old Ramon to give "the boys" to understand, and to understand himself, that the events of the next day had nothing to do with warfare, but only with electing a president of the Department.
Evening began to fall. Darkness drew its curtains of funereal velvet across the verdant plain, across the road, here yellow and there spotted with red patches; across the radiant azure of the heavens. The sounds of night began to be heard: the rustling of the breeze, the lowing of cattle, the shrilling of grasshoppers, the croaking of frogs. The wakening stars pierced the first shadows and descended to bathe their luminous eyes in the Guarico, and as it mirrored their gold the river flowed gently onward in the night, like a golden Pactolus. Eight o'clock strikes. Camoruco is going to sleep, for the little hamlet arises with the dawn; and it closes its eyes when the stars begin to open theirs. Only from the headquarters of the two political factions there continues to be heard now the strumming of a guitar, now the plaint of a creole song. Bottles have been circulating freely during the afternoon, and that restlessness, that wailing of the guitar and the lamentation of that song are only the result of the brandy of the plains which, when it does not make for ferocity, makes for melancholy, and when it does not shed blood, sheds tears. The strains of a folk-song rise in the air:
"Two kisses my poor soul treasures,
That never forgot shall be: The last that I gave my mother, And the first that I gave to thee.
On the door that leads to the prison
Is written in chalk this verse: It is here that the good man turns bad man,
And the bad man changes to worse."
Presently one of the party-leaders appears before the circle from which the song is rising. "How about someone to go and take a look at what's doing yonder?" he suggests. "Yonder" meant the other faction. A thousand voices seemed to reply: "I." "I." L-
The man chosen for the errand was a vaquero of some twenty years, dark, robust, beardless, with tiny eyes as black as two faraperas. As he rose to go on his errand, the unsuccessful volunteers began to taunt him:
"How can they send that cow?”
"Be sure to cry out loud, now, when you want us to come to your help."
"Here's a woman to go along and keep you company."
The boss intervened. "Peace, gentlemen, peace; and everybody to bed. To-morrow we conquer the enemy." But despite the presence of his leader the chosen man retorted with three or four coarse gibes and left. As he stalked along the road he thought: "What do those scoundrels imagine? That we'll conquer the enemy to-morrow? I wish the row broke out to-night! They think I'm afraid. I oughtn't to have listened to them. The beasts!"
The road was deserted. Everything was veiled in shadow. A fine drizzle began to fall. As the youth walked meditatively along there came to his ears from the distance, on the rainy wings of the breeze, snatches of music. Those of the other party were having a good time, too. The young plainsman thought again of his companions' jests, and growled: "The beasts!"
Suddenly it seemed to him that he could dimly make out a form in the darkness and he placed himself on guard. The form was approaching from the opposite direction. As it came near, the youth recognized an old man belonging to the hostile faction. "Where are you going, old man?"
"Taking the fresh air hereabouts."
"Taking the fresh air! You're a spy! And you're out to spy on us!"
"Spy? So is your mother, you scoundrel!"
There were no more words. Two machetes cleaved the darkness and the old man, his head split in two, was stretched in the mire, under the rain, dying like a dog.
The youth ran off at once to his leader and not without a certain boastfulness told, in the presence of all, just what had occurred.
"Kill an old man!" jeered one of the group. "Why not an old woman?"
The leader sternly rebuked the young plainsman. "You have committed a crime, a needless crime. They'll soon be after you. I can't do a thing. Quick! Off to the mountains!"
The boy was perplexed. What? Flee to the mountains, run away like a wild animal? Then it was true that this was a crime? But the devil! Wasn't that old man one of the enemy?
"Be off, friend. I'll bring the news to your ranch."
The youth vanished amid the thin drizzle into the gloom . . .
His flight betrayed him. ... At last, wearied of his wandering, hazardous existence, he delivered himself up "to justice." . . . The morning when they sentenced him, finding himself condemned without hope of reprieve to the penal settlement, the poor fellow burst into tears before the court, sobbing: "But weren't we supposed to conquer them? Weren't they our enemies?"