MEXICAN ROMEO - An Affair of the Heart, Edit
by Harold Ballagh Edit
Published in Short Stories 1903
WITNESS if I have not a nature simpatico in the extreme !
Here am I, Leandro Bayado, arrived at five feet six inches, and years twenty and three.
I am a Mexican mozo of good looks. How do I know it ? It is unnecessary to look into the mirror imported from France that hangs in Don Alfredo's room, although I have done this when that pock-marked mozo Juan was not looking. It is sufficient to gaze into the pool of water two miles from the town and see smiling back at me white teeth, black eyes, curved eyebrows— why not, cannot arched brows smile?
Don Alfredo stalks out upon the corridor of his great house -—now Don Alfredo is barely twenty and one—he looks across the patio— that court opened to the rain of heaven, filled with flowering trees and shrubs — and he sees not me, me whom he is eternally ordering about as if he alQne were a man, and I a beast. I hear him as he strides around the four sides of the patio. He is provoked, as I can judge by his face; for, of course, the great keyhole in the greater door of the corral is large enough for a man to see a great deal through.
Don Alfredo barely escapes knocking over the plants in their decorated pots, standing upon columns of pottery at each pillar of the corridor. It recalls to me the time that I saw him deliberately ride through the main entrance, and spoil the vista of flowers and plants in pots high and pots low which faced the wide front door. His white stallion, urged by his great spurs, pranced through the whole mass of bloom and crockery no more alarmed than if a bull had been charging him in the ring. You may be perfectly sure that the father of Don Alfredo was out at his hacienda, however. The .mother? That is different. She talked some pretty rapid Spanish, and she ordered Juan to buy quickly plants and ^pots that the desolation might be remedied.
Well, Alfredo comes swinging over the glazed tiles, getting blacker and blacker in the face. The light catches on the silver chains and buttons that glitter from waist to heel upon his skin-tight trousers of cloth, while I, mind you, never possessed any other than a blouse and breeches of white cotton, with in truth a blanket not ugly in color, and a sombrero of decent straw. By the time the door of the corral is reached Alfredo appears like a cloud of thunder. He thrusts open the great door and discovers me — Leandro — industriously sweeping the cobble-stones with a broom of those red twigs that grow in the barancas between the mountains surrounding the town. Alfredo stabs me with a knife-life glance.
"Why did you not answer me?" he says.
" I did not hear you," I reply.
For a fact, he had neither clapped his hands nor called, at which indeed, I had wondered. Doubtless, it was to catch me in a fault he had come upon me without summoning me to him.
" How lazy you are," he says, "the corral not cleaned, the horses filthy. Caramba ! Take them to be washed at once."
With perfect literalness, grinning at Alfredo's back, I prepare to take the horses to that pool without the town where one washes them — but I leave behind the mules.
Wash horses, indeed! As if the day before they had not been bathed! Pray what does his mightiness do? When he is not ordering me to do this cr that, he spends his days playing cards in the cantina, and drinking all strong drinks from Mexican tequila to those fiery liquors of Europe and the United States.
And his nights ? You shall hear.
His father, Don Vicente, has a neighbor whom ne very much dislikes, Don Fernando.
Both being men of great riches, neither can drive out the other. The retainers of these men, the very vaqueros of
the fields, have tired of their cowboy strife, and the haciendas, with their thousands of peons, each exist in an armed truce. Now the town houses of these men of wealth adjoin. In public the heads of these households salute one another formally, but for many years no words of amity have passed between them, and the younger members ignore each other. All this I learned from the gossip of the kitchen maids and the house mozos. For I am glad to say I was not born upon either hacienda, but I am from Sonora, many leagues away from the abode of the noble Don Alfredo and his even more violent father. . Those evenings of Alfredo?
I come to them. Upon the plaza, where walk in the gloaming, while the band plays, the procession of se noras and serioritas from right to left, and the procession of Seniors from left to right, while the outside walk is similarly thronged with peons like myself, I have watched, but I have never been able to see any symptom of flirtation be* tween Don Alfredo and the heiress of the adjoining casa.
This senorita, really beautiful, exists not as far as the household of Don Vicente is concerned. But the rest of the world speaks glowingly of her charm and her wealth. Her mozos even love her, for she condescends to them with great kindness. When she returns from a journey she calls each by name and shakes hands. She brings little gifts to the maid servants, whom she does not disdain to embrace after an absence. At the hacienda they adore her; on her saint's day she gives to them a great fiesta, with music of a band and the dancing of the jarabe. Many a caballero "plays bear" under her window. She flirts with them all, but she favors none, so says the market-place.
For myself, I have traveled as far as Mexico City. I have been scorched by the heat of the "hot lands," and I have seen the snows of the Mexican mountains. Therefore, I believe not all I hear. I keep my own eyes open to see what is to be seen. It is true that I have seen nothing unusual about the Senorita Conchita. As a servant of Don Vicente, I cannot strike up a friendship with the mozos of our neighbor. In church I behold the senorita kneeling devoutly, with a gauzy rebozo of black covering her head and shoulders, although dressed otherwise in wonderful and precious garments wrought by the tailors of France.
Nevertheless, I am no fool. Those demure eyelids cover dark eyes ; it is not hard to imagine them bestowing glances of fire.
The mystery in the way Don Alfredo disappears in the evening after the band, at ten o'clock, has hushed, explains itself not at all. He goes not then to the cantina of the gentlemen, and he never enters the cantina of the common folk. If an affair of the heart afflict him, some of his mozos would be aware of it They would carry his guitar, they would unbar for him doors, they would await his orders, they would know and they would speak — at least to me. If it were a matter to be concealed, I would be chosen,for the rest of the mozos are men born upon the hacienda, and they kiss literally the hands of Don Vicente. No, it is purely a mystery, for he remains not in the house.
Now being thirsty, although from the pole on my shoulders hang water-bottles, I stop in the plaza and buy of Nero good pulque. As he pours from his gourd a second glassful, he says to me:
"Leandro, heard you the singular story of ghosts in the house of your neighbor, Don Vicente?"
"No," I gurgle.
"A Dios!" cries Nero, in astonishment. "However, it it is true that enmity like a gulf lies between those households."
"What was the beginning of that strife?" I question.
"There are many stories, and which is the truth? Quien sabef It is said as boys that Don Vicente and Don Fernando 'played bear ' to the same senorita. Sit here in the shade of the wall, Leandro, the heat in the middle of the street is great. As queen of the bull- fight, this senorita decorated Don Fernando with a band of ribbon of color precious in the extreme, but as your master bent his head, kneeling before her, for a similar sash, she put upon him an ugly little string of silk of yellow, which signifies ' The engagement is broken. 1 It might have passed, but the queen smiled wickedly, and the young gentlemen permitted not a moment of the fiesta to slip by without plaguing Don Vicente. Now as the bull-fight had been before the entire population of the town, and the young gentlemen of the haciendas, amateurs, had thrilled all by their skill and bravery in fighting their own bulls, this public affront was too much for the proud stomach of Don Vicente. In a final moment of exasperation, he stabbed Don Fernando, and it was many days before the wound healed."
"The queen?" asks I.
"Oh!" says Nero, "don't you know? She became the wife of Don Fernando, and the mother of the greatest beauty here — Conchita. Others say the enmity began — "
"Well," says I, yawning, "one such story is enough — but what about the ghosts?"
Nero takes the pole from his shoulder and puts his pulque gourds on the ground. He squats down beside them, and I lean against the wall, hugging my knees, and gazing at my water-bottles. At the house Don Alfredo is probably demanding "Where is Leandro?" "Gone to the fountain for water," they will say. Bah! It is necessary for a man to be amicable in the plaza. An hour more or less is a small matter in life. As Nero is calmly smoking a cigarette, I wait patiently until he speaks.
"It must be true that the house is haunted. The old father of Don Fernando died there of phthisis; perhaps it is he coming back to see how the household is run. Tulita, in whose shop one can buy all things, from flower pots to wood, says that being unable to sleep, she went up to her roof and chancing to look over the neighborhood, she saw a ghostly figure upon the top of Don Fernando 's house.
"A Dios!" I cry, surprised.
"It is true," continues Nero; "more than that, the household of Don Fernando have heard the footsteps upon the roof."
" Perhaps some of their people go up there."
"What, after ten o'clock at night, when in small towns most Mexicans are sleeping? Besides, it, is unlikely, because there are no steps ; it is a flat roof, to be sure, and cemented, but one cannot get at it, except by climbing over the tiles of the roof of the corridor."
It came to me like a vision, that here was my chance of being revenged upon Don Alfredo. I knew almost as if I had seen him that this was the solution of his nightly disappearance. If he had taken me with him, I should have said nothing. What was he doing upon the roof of his neighbor's house — and that man the enemy of his father? It could not be for robbery! It must be in order to awaken the superstitious fears of the household; perhaps to drive them from the place altogether.
"Now, Nero," says I, "if I were you, I would show my interest by suggesting to the son of Don Fernando that a fierce dog would probably drive away the robber — for a burglar and not a ghost, you may be sure it is."
"Gracias!" cries Nero, picking up his shoulder pole. "I own the very dog needful, and I will sell it to them."
As Nero walks down the pueblo street shrieking: "Pulque! Pulque picadito!" I come home with quick steps, and the dew of great labor stands upon my brow to prove my industry.
"The crowd at the fountain," I declare, in response to the ugly names bestowed upon me by Don Alfredo, who had been waiting for me to follow him upon a ride, "is so great that they push one another, striving for water, and break the water-jars of the weaker."
"And yet," says Alfredo, lifting the corner of his lip, " how wonderful it is that there is not a drop of water upon your clothes!"
• Now upon the ride the insults I have to submit to from the tongue of Alfredo cause me to desire with great ragings to plunge into him my knife, but I restrain myself. I am convinced by nightfall, without danger to me, will come my revenge and his annihilation.
By ten o'clock, I am upon the housetop of Tulita — the little Tula of six feet, who sells in her shop all things, and who drinks fiery tequila, and lies upon her roof that her nerves may become composed in sleep, and I wait there patiently.
Presently I see the red and long stringy hair of Tulita, as it streams over her green eyes. She is mounting to the roof, and the full moon bathes her in a radiance ludicrously out of place in the case of such an ugly woman.
" Sit down, little Tula," I softly say.
"Si, is it you, Leandro? Look you also for the ghost?"
Tula sits down upon the petate of straw which is often her bed.
"I am nervous," she says; "tell me, what medicine is good to make sleep come?"
As I look at her twitching mouth, and her face Bushed from drink, I say amiably:
"Tequila is not good for the nerves, little Tula."
"On the contrary," says Tula, obstinately, "I find it very good for me. But that poof little Conchita, I wonder if Cecilia has been able to quiet her."
"What is the matter with Conchita?"
"Oh, she is secretly in her own room in a state of nerves and tears, of walking and of hand-wringing, and no one can conceive why."
"How then do you know?" '
"Cecilia, her maid, ran to me privately, out of the back gate, for a quieting medicine for her mistress."
"Did you give her tequila?" says I, grinning.
" No, I gave her green leaves of bruja to be placed upon the temples, and I told Cecilia to tie a cloth wet with alcohol about her mistress's head."
"Has anything happened over at Don Fernando 's to throw the Senorita Conchita into such a state?"
" Nothing, except that her brother Cesar to-day bought the fiercest dog in the town and put him — where do you suppose ? M
"On the roof," whisper I, bending toward Tula for in this town even one's voice breaks the wonderful silence of the night.
"Si, sefior," murmurs Tula, "a dog to meet a ghost! No wonder my nerves permit me no sleep!"
My whole body begins to prickle, as if bitten by a thousand little ants. What will the dog meet? A ghost? I cross myself at the idea. A robber? I think not. Don Alfredo ? I am reasonably sure that will happen, but I cannot conceive why this result should throw the senorita into such a passion of dread. Probably she fears her grandfather's ghost as much as she feared the old man in life — if one can believe report.
Suddenly Tula and I become stone.
Before us, moving sedately and in mysterious silence, passes a figure over the flat roof of Don Vicente. The distance is too great to recognize the features, but the alert, haughty pose of the head, the lithe grace suggest to me Alfredo. Caramba! What a handsome devil of a gentleman he is !
The moonlight floods the patio of Don Ffernando; one can hear the tinkle of his fountain, and the hoarse cooing of amorous pigeons. There are no lights in the house, but I fancy I make out silent, waiting figures in the hide chairs within the corridors.
"The-ghost! Do-you-see-him? M ejaculates Tula, tremulously.
" Hush !" I whisper, fiercely.
The suspense begins to tell upon me.
Alfredo — or who else is it? — reaches the barrier that separates his azote a from that of his hereditary enemy. He leaps lightly over the dividing wall, and upon the second encounteis the blood-thirsty dog of Nero, the pulque seller.
"Valgame Dios! M cries Tula.
"Shut up!" I howl.
The sound of the man and the dog battling fiercely on the roof rouses, as by magic, the household of Don Fernando.
A woman's muffled scream passes unnoticed. Ladders and roof in an instant are alive with armed men rushing toward the frantically struggling combatants. In a final mighty effort Alfredo frees himself and tries to scale the barrier, but the pursuing men throw themselves upon him.
"We have the robber now," shouts a voice over the parapet of the roof.
"All right, Cesar, take him to the carcel," cries Don Fernando from the patio.
"That is Alfredo," I say to Tula.
"Ai! They go down by the side," says Tula.
Realizing the import of this I sprang down through Tula's shop to the street, and am at the police station as the others arrive.
What a sight (
Don Alfredo truly, but only the clown of a gentleman. Clothes in tatters, blood and dirt, scratches and bites make him unrecognizable.
"This man," says Don Cesar to the chief of police, "is a burglar caught by my dog upon the roof of my house."
"What is your name?" asks the Jefe of the prisoner.
"Alfredo Estevan Figuero," says my master, with a lofty head, while I smother my laughter with my serape.
Every man falls away from him as if he had said he were St. Stephen himself.
"What were you doing upon the roof of Don Fernando?" asks the Jefe.
"I was taking a walk," says Alfredo, looking straight into the Jefe's eyes.
"On another man's roof!" says the Jefe. "Don Cesar thought you were a burglar."
"I very certainly am not," says Alfredo.
"The dog thought so," says the Jefe.
The crowd looking upon my master titters.
An angry flush climbs up to Alfredo's eyes. He sees me in the crowd and stabs me with a glance. I get behind him; he is not armed, for he used no knife on the dog, but I prefer to take no chances. Silly for a man to go abroad unarmed. The thought must have passed through Alfredo's mind also.
"If I were a robber," he says, sarcastically, "I would have arms upon me.' '
"Upon the roof of an enemy's house unarmed! It is mysterious," says a man in the crowd unguardedly. Both Don Cesar and Don Alfredo look suspiciously blank.
The Jefe knowing the station of Alfredo, makes no motion to have him searched. He accepts his word.
**Don Alfredo," he says, "have the candor to explain your actions and doubtless the incident can be forthwith closed."
"I am sorry," says Alfredo, "that I must decline to make any other explanation than I have."
"In that case," says Don Cesar, fingering his pistolholster nervously, "I must — "
"My soul!" calls a voice, "brother mine, do not threaten him. He cannot explain — but I can!"
I jump, as I recognize the Senorita Conchita. A rebozo is over her head, and her maid Cecilia is beside her.
I open a way for them from the door to the front.
"Cesar," she says, in a low voice, embracing him, "Don Alfredo is my lover. I feared the disapproval of my family. We met upon the roof of the house — but this he cannot explain to others. To-night — "
The Jefe's eyes smile, though his lips fold close.
Don Alfredo is pale and red by turns. Don Cesar is speechless with astonishment. At opposite doors stand the grizzled enemies of a lifetime, Don Fernando and Don Vicente.
Looking up and seeing her father's eyes upon her, Conchita gets no further than "to-night," gasps, and clutches at Cesar's arm, despairingly.
"Well, Sefior Jefe," says Cesar, suddenly, "do me the favor to forget the trouble I have given you. There was an unfortunate mistake, my neighbor was unknown to my dog."
"Also, Sefior Jefe," says Alfredo, "accept my apologies. It is an affair to be settled out of court."
"On the contrary," amicably growls Don Fernando, stepping forward, "affairs of the heart can only be settled in court."
"You consent — is it possible?" stammers Don Alfredo.
" To whatever your honorable father permits," says Don Fernando.
"If my son has stolen your daughter's affections," begins Don Vicente in almost humble accents, "we can only crave your forgiveness. It seems love and marriage — "
Don Alfredo falls on his knees and kisses his father's hand, while Conchita throws herself upon Don Fernando's bosom.
I walk away, knowing that my revenge has miscarried, but that I have seen the end, if not the beginning, of a famous family feud.