THE KISS Edit
By Gustavo A. Becquer Edit
Translated by Mary Mills, from the Spanish, for Short Stories 1899.
When, in the early part of the XIXth century, a division of the French Army entered and took possession of the historical old city of Toledo, the commanding officers were fully aware of the danger to which they were exposed in the Spanish towns, if they were lodged in small detachments throughout the city, and therefore ordered the seizure of the best and largest buildings in the town to be used as quarters.
After occupying the palace of Charles V., they took the Council house, and when that could hold no more they invaded the asylums and convents, and ended by turning even the churches into stables for the cavalry. In just such a condition was the city of Toledo when, late one night, wrapped in their dark military cloaks, a party of a hundred tall, arrogant, lusty dragoons, such as our grandmothers still recall with admiration, clattered down the narrow, solitary streets that lead from the gate of Sol to Zocodover, their sabres clashing and their hOrscs' hoofs striking from the stony pavement light that flashed through the darkness.
It was commanded by a young officer who rode some thirty paces ahead, and was talking in a low voice to another who, judging by his dress, was also an army officer. The latter went on foot, carrying a small lantern and guiding the troopers through that labyrinth of dark, winding, crooked streets.
"Indeed," said the commanding officer to his guide, "if the lodging you have prepared for us is such as you describe, it would be almost preferable to mess in the open fields or in the public square."
"What else can be done. Captain?" replied the guide, who was a sergeant detailed to look up lodgings. "In the palace there is not room for a grain of wheat, much less a man ; in St. John of the Kings, there are fifteen hussars sleeping in every monk's cell. The convent to which I am conducting you is not a bad place, but, about three or four days ago, there fell, as if from the clouds, one of the flying columns that are scouring the country, but we succeeded in crowding them into the cloisters, so that the church is free."
''Well," exclaimed the officer after a short silence, as if resigning himself to the strange shelter that chance had given him, "better discomfort than nothing. At all events, should it rain, which is probable, we shall be under cover, and that is something."
The troopers, preceded by the guide, rode on in silence until they reached a small square, beyond which rose the dark walls of the convent with its Moorish tower, its tall spire, its ogive cupola and its dark, uneven roof.
"Here is your lodging!" exclaimed the sergeant, addressing the Captain, and pointing out the convent. The troop halted while the Captain, alig'hting, took the lantern from the guide and went toward the building.
As the church was almost completely dismantled, the soldiers who occupied the other part of the building thought it was useless to leave the doors, so that a piece to-day and another to-morrow had been torn away for firewood until there remained nothing but the hinges.
Our young officer found neither locks nor bolts to prevent his entrance.
The feeble light of the lantern was lost among the heavy shadows of the naves, and threw upon the walls the gigantic and fantastic figure of the sergeant, who preceded him, as be examined above and below every corner of the church, peering into the deserted chapels, until having thoroughly examined the place, he ordered the troopers to dismount, and men and horses crowded in and were accommodated as well as could be.
As we have said, the church was completely dismantled. On the main altar the cloth with which the monks had veiled the holy place, hung in tatters from the high cornice. Scattered through the naves could be seen ornaments leaning against the walls, the niches void of images. A ray of light fell across the odd-looking room of dark, larch stalls in the choir. In the broken pavement could still be distinguished the broad slab covered with Gothic inscriptions, and bearing the coat of arms of the dead resting beneath ; and far beyond in the depths of the silent chapels and along the transept stood out in the darkness, like white, motionless phantoms, marble statues, some reclining, others kneeling on their marble sepulchers, as if they were the only inhabitants of the place.
Any one less fatigued than the captain of dragoons, who had ridden fourteen leagues that day, or less accustomed to look upon such sacrilege as the most natural thing in the world, would not have closed his eyes in that dark and imposing edifice, in which the blasphemies of the soldiers who complained loudly of their improvised quarters, the metallic ring of their spurs on the sepulchral tablets in the pavement, the fretting of the impatient horses and the rattling of the chains that held them fast to the pillars formed a strange and fearful sound throughout the circuit of the church, which was echoed from all the vaults of the vast edifice.
But our hero, though young, was familiar with these vicissitudes of campaign life, and, as soon as his men were in their quarters, called for a sack of forage to be placed at the foot of the steps leading to the main altar, and wrapping himself in his cloak, and resting his head on the step, in five minutes he was snoring as tranquilly as King Joseph in his palace in Madrid.
The soldiers, taking their saddles for pillows, followed his example, and soon all was wrapped in silence.
A half an hour later nothing was heard but the moaning of the wind through the broken windows of the temple, and the confused fluttering of the night birds which had their nests high up in the sculptured niches of the walls, and the sentinel's step, as wrapped in the ample folds of his cloak, he paced up and down the portico.
At the time of our story, as true as it is extraordinary, for those who could not appreciate the art treasures within its walls, Toledo was but an old ruined, unbearable, uninhabitable town of comfortless houses huddled together.
If we judge by the acts of vandalism committed by the French officers during their occupation of the town, they were far from being either artists or archaeologists, and consequently they grew weary of the ancient city of the Caesars.
In such a state of things, the most insignificant novelty that broke the monotony of their existence was welcomed eagerly by the idle, such as the promotion of a comrade, a strategic movement of a flying column, the sending of a private despatch, or the arrival in the city of any of their companions, became a theme of conversation and an object of commentaries, followed by complaints, criticisms and suppositions.
As might be expected, the topic of the day among the officers who were accustomed to meet daily in the Zocodover, was the arrival of the dragoons whose captain we left resting from the fatigues of his journey, sleeping at the foot of the chancel.
The conversation had lasted about an hour, diversified with comments on the absence of the newcomer who was expected at the Zocodover by a former college friend, when, from one of the streets that opened on the square, suddenly appeared our gallant Captain, wearing a large metal helmet, with a crest of white plumes, a dark blue coat with red facings, and a magnificent two-handed sword with steel scabbard, which kept time with his martial tread, as it was dragged along the pavement, and with the sharp, quick click of his golden spurs.
His comrade, followed by the group of officers, hastened to welcome him, for the latter were eager to know one of whom they had heard so many original and eccentric traits of character.
After the warm embraces, exclamations, congratulations and questions usual on such occasions; after a minute account of all that was passing in Madrid, of the fortunes of war, of their friends absent or dead, the conversation halted at the usual theme — ^the hardships of the service, the lack of amusements in the city, and the inconvenience of the lodgings.
At this point one of the group, who had evidently heard of the bad grace with which the young Captain consented to lodge his men in the ruined church, said in a tone of raillery :
"What about your quarters? How did you spend the night?"
"There was a little of everything," replied the Captain, "for if I did not sleep very well, the cause of my wakefulness was well worth the trouble. Insomnia near a pretty woman is certainly not the worst of evils."
"A woman!" repeated his friend, as if astonished at the good fortune of the newcomer ; "that is what we call to come only to conquer."
"Is she, by chance, a sweetheart who has followed you from Madrid, to make your exile in Toledo more bearable?" asked another.
"Oh, no !" replied the Captain, "not by any means. I swear I did not know her, nor did I ever dream of finding so beautiful a hostess in so uncomfortable a lodging. It is quite an adventure."
“Relate it! relate it!" cried the officers with one voice, surrounding the Captain, who narrated the following story to a group of interested listeners:
“Last night I was sleeping only as a man who has ridden thirteen leagues can sleep, when I awoke startled by a horrible clashing sound, a sound that deafened me for a moment, and was followed by a humming as if a gadfly were buzzing at my ear.
“As you may imagine, the cause of my fright was the first stroke of that diabolical bell, a species of bronze sub-chanter that the canons of Toledo have hung in their cathedral for the laudable purpose of wearying the patience of those in need of sleep.
"Growling at the bell and the bell-ringer, I was about to turn over for another sleep, as soon as the horrible sound had died away, when something extraordinary caught my sight and took possession of my imagination. In the faint moonlight that came through the narrow, arched window of the main chapel, I saw a woman kneeling beside the altar."
The officers looked at one another with an incredulous expression of wonder; but the Captain, without paying any attention to the effect produced by his words, continued as follows :
“You cannot imagine anything equal to that nocturnal and fantastic vision outlined mid the confused shadows of the chapel, just like those virgins painted on glass windows that stand out in relief, white and luminous against the dark background of the cathedrals.
"Her face was oval, showing a slight wasting of the flesh., which gave a spiritual expression to features stamped with soft melancholy. Her intense pallor, the pure lines of her slender form, the nobility and repose of her attitude, her white floating garments, recalled those women of whom I dreamed when I was only a child. Chaste, heavenly images, the chimerical object of the vague love of a youth !
"I thought it was a trick of the imagination, and without taking my eyes from her I did not dare to breathe, fearing that she might vanish from my sight.
"She remained motionless.
"I yearned to think that so diaphanous and luminous a creature was not of this earth, but a spirit that, having taken upon itself a human form, had descended in the moonlight, leaving behind in the air the bluish ray that, from the high arched window, fell to the foot of the opposite wall, breaking through the dark shadows of that gloomy and mysterious building."
"But!" exclaimed his college friend, interrupting him in what at first he took to be a joke, but which ended by interesting him, “how came that woman there? Did you not speak to her? Did she not explain her presence in such a place?"
"I did not speak to her, for I was sure she would neither hear, see nor answer me.'
“Was she deaf?'
"Was she blind?'
"Was she a mute!" exclaimed three or four of the officers all at once.
"She was all three," exclaimed the Captain, after a moment's pause, “for she was ... of marble."
On hearing the stupendous conclusion of so strange an adventure, the whole group burst into loud laughter, while one of them said to the narrator of the strange story who was the only one who remained grave and silent :
"Let us put an end to it ! I have a thousand just such beauties, a seraglio in Saint John of the Kings ; a seraglio at your service, since marble is the same as flesh to you."
"Oh, no," continued the Captain without being annoyed in the least by the laughter of his companions, "I am sure they cannot resemble mine. Mine is a real Castilian dame who, by some miracle of the sculptor's art, looks as if she had not been buried, but in body and soul remains kneeling on the slab that rests above the graves, motionless, with her hands clasped in prayer, absorbed in ecstatic mysticism."
"You talk as if you wished to prove the truth of the fable of Galatea."
"As for me, I may as well tell you that I always thought it a madness, but since last night I begin to understand the passion of the Greek sculptor."
"Given the special conditions of the lady of your love, I think you will not have any objections in presenting us to her. As for me, I can only say that I shall not breathe, I shall not live until I see that miracle of beauty. But . . . what the deuce is the matter with you? You act as if you did not wish to present us. Ha ! ha 1 ha ! What a good thing it would be if you were already jealous."
"Jealous," hastily replied the Captain, "jealous — of men, no ; but see how far my imagination carries me. Beside the statue of the woman there is another, grave and as lifelike as she is, a warrior ... no doubt her husband. . . . Very well, ... I am going to tell the whole, though you ridicule my folly ... if I were not afraid to be taken for a madman, I believe I should have already broken that statue into a hundred pieces."
Another and louder burst of laughter saluted the original revelation of the eccentric lover of the marble lady.
"Nonsense, nonsense; we must see her," said some of the officers.
"Yes, yes, we must know whether the object be worthy of so great a passion," added the others.
"When shall we drink a bout in the church in which you have your quarters?" cried all.
"Whenever you please — ^to-night, if you wish," replied the young Captain, recovering his usual good humor, after that flash of jealousy. "By the bye, with my baggage I have brought two dozen bottles of champagne, real champagne, what was left from a present made to our brigadier-general, who, as you know, is a relative."
"Bravo ! bravo !" cried the officers in joyful exclamation.
"We will drink the wine of France !"
"And sing a song of Rousard!"
"And talk of women to please our host !" 'So, until to-night !" 'Until to-night !"
The pacific inhabitants of Toledo had long locked and bolted the massive doors of their fortress-like old houses. The great bell of the cathedral struck the hour of retiring, and high up in the palace there was heard the last sound of the bugle, when ten or twelve officers who had met in the Zocodover, took their way to the convent in which the Captain had his quarters, more eager to drink the promised bottles of champagne than to see the wonderful marble statue.
The night had closed in dark and threatening. The sky was covered with heavy gray clouds; the air imprisoned in the narrow, crooked streets rushed through them violently, threatening to extinguish the faint light of the lanterns, and making the iron weather-cocks on the towers whirr sharply and rapidly.
Scarcely did the officers make their appearance in the square before the convent, in which their new friend was quartered, when the latter, who was impatiently awaiting them, went forward to meet them, and after exchanging a few words in a low tone, all entered the gloomy church in which the dull light of a lantern struggled laboriously with the dark heavy shadows.
"Faith !" exclaimed one of the guests, looking around, "it is the last place in the world for a feast."
"Truly," said another, "you invite us here to see a lady, and it is with the greatest difficulty that we can see our hands."
"And, besides, it is as cold as if we were in Siberia," added a third, wrapping himself in his cloak.
"Be calm, gentlemen, be calm," interrupted the host; "be calm, everything will be provided. Here, boy," he continued, addressing one of his orderlies, "bring here some wood and make a good bonfire in the main chapel."
The orderly, in obedience to his Captain's orders, began to rain blows on the larch stalls of the choir, until he had enough wood to pile up on the steps of the chancel. He took the lantern and set fire to the richly carved fragments among which could be seen here part of a clustered column, there the image of a holy abbot, the bust of a woman, or the deformed head of a griffin peeping through the leaves.
In a few minutes a bright light suddenly shone throughout the church and announced to the guests that the feast was ready. The Captain, who did the honors of his quarters with as much ceremony as if he were in his own house, addressing his guests, said :
"If it be your pleasure, we will pass to the dining-room."
His comrades, with the utmost gravity, replied to the invitation with a comical bow, and marched to the main chapel, preceded by their host, who, on arriving at the steps, stopped a moment, and, extending his hand toward the tomb, said with the most exquisite politeness :
"I have the pleasure of presenting you to the lady of my thoughts. I think you will agree with me and say that I have not exaggerated her beauty."
The officers turned their eyes toward the object pointed out by their friend, and an exclamation of wonder involuntarily escaped their lips.
Under a sepulchral arch of black marble kneeling before a "prie-dieu," with her hands clasped, and her face turned toward the altar, they saw a woman so beautiful that none like her had ever come from the hands of a sculptor, nor could the fancy imagine anything more supremely beautiful.
"Indeed, she is an angel !" exclaimed one of them.
"What a pity she is of marble!" added another.
"There is no doubt that, though it were but an illusion, to be near a woman of such beauty is sufficient to keep one awake the night through."
"And do you not know who she is?" asked some of those who were contemplating the statue of the Captain, who was smiling, well satisfied with his triumph.
"Recalling a little of the Latin I learned in my childhood, I have succeeded, with much trouble, in deciphering the inscription on the tomb," answered the Captain ; "and as far as I can make out, she belongs to a noble family of Castile, a famous warrior who fought under the Great Captain. I have forgotten his name, but his wife whom you see was named Dona Elvira de Castneda, and faith, if the copy resembles the original, she must have been the most remarkable woman of her age."
After these brief explanations the guests who did not lose sight of the principal object of the reunion, proceeded to uncork a few of the bottles, and sitting around the fire began to send round the wine.
As the libations became more frequent, and the vapor of the foaming champagne began to affect their heads, the animation, noise and shouts of the young men increased, some throwing the empty bottles at the stone monks standing against the pillars, and others singing with all the force of their lungs gay songs, while those beyond burst into loud laughter, clapped their hands in applause, or quarreled, uttering blasphemies.
The Captain drank in silence, like one in despair, with his eves fixed on the statue of Dona Elvira.
Illumined by the red splendor of the bonfire, and seen through the veil that intoxication had drawn over his eyes, the marble image seemed to be transformed into a real woman. Her lips parted as if murmuring a prayer ; her bosom rose as if she were oppressed, as if she sobbed ; her hands were pressed more closely ; even her cheeks seemed to color as if she blushed at the sacrilegious and repugnant spectacle. The officers who noticed the taciturn sadness of their comrade, roused him from the ecstasy in which he was plunged, and presenting him with a glass, exclaimed in chorus :
"Come, a toast! you are the only one who has not given a toast to-night."
The young man took the glass, stood up and, lifting it on high, said, looking straight into the face of the marble warrior kneeling beside Dona Elvira:
"I drink to the Emperor, to the success of his army, thanks to which we have been able to come into the very heart of Castile, to pay our addresses to the wife of a conqueror of Ccrinola, even on his own sepulcher !"
The officers received the toast with loud applause, and the Captain, balancing himself, took a few steps toward the tomb.
"No," he continued, addressing the marble effigy of the warrior, with that stupid smile peculiar to the intoxicated, "do not think I harbor any ill-will toward you as a rival, . . . on the contrary, I admire you, for your patience as a husband, a pattern of meekness and forbearance, and I will be generous to you. You shall drink, on the word of a soldier ... it shall not be said that I have allowed you to die of thirst, while we are emptying twenty bottles . . . drink!"
And with the words he lifted the glass to his lips, took a sip, then dashed the remainder into the warrior's face, bursting into loud, noisy laughter as the wine dripped from the marble head of the motionless figure to the tomb upon which he knelt.
Captain!" cried one of his companions in a jesting tone, take care. You cannot joke with those marble warriors with impunity. Remember what happened to the Fifth Hussars in the monastery of Poblet. They say that the marble warriors in the cloister lifted their marble swords against those who amused themselves by putting mustaches, charcoal mustaches on their marble countenances."
The officers applauded loudly ; but the Captain, heedless of their mockery, continued, his mind fixed on the same idea.
"Do you think I would have given him the wine if I were not sure that he would swallow at least what fell into his mouth? Oh, no! I do not believe as you do, that these statues are but inert marble, as lifeless as on the day it was taken from the quarry. The artist, who is almost a god, breathes life into his work — not life sufficient to make it move, or walk, but a strange, incomprehensible consciousness that I cannot very well explain, but that I feel especially when I drink a little."
"Splendid!" exclaimed his companions, "drink and continue."
The officer drank, and fixing his eyes on the image of Doiia Elvira, continued with increasing exaltation :
"Look at her ! look at her ! Do you not see the blood course underneath her soft, transparent flesh? Do you not see underneath that delicate soft alabaster skin flow a rosecolored light? Do you wish more life? . . . Do you wish more reality?"
"Oh, yes, most assuredly !" said one of his comrades ; "we would wish that she was flesh and blood in reality."
"Flesh and blood!" exclaimed the Captain, "1 need a breath of the sea to cool my burning brow, to kiss ice and snow, . . . snow bathed in a soft light, . . . snow flushed with a golden ray of sunlight, ... to kiss a woman white, beautiful and cold as that marble image whose fantastic beauty breathes and lives under the light of the flames. Oh t yes ; a kiss, only a kiss on thy lips can cool the fire that consumes me."
"Captain!" exclaimed several of the officers on seeing him go madly toward the statue, with wild eyes and staggering steps, "what madness ! Let the joke end and leave the dead in peace 1"
The young man paid no heed, but staggered toward the tomb ; but as he extended his arms to embrace Dofia Elvira, a cry of horror resounded throughout the temple. With the blood gushing from his eyes, mouth and nose, he fell, his face crushed, at the foot of the tomb.
The officers, mute with fright, dared not go to his aid.
The moment their comrade approached his lips to those of Dona Elvira they had seen the motionless warrior raise his hand and strike him down with a frightful blow of his marble gauntlet.