PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
Translator: Margaret Jull Costa
It was midnight. I was sitting writing when Concha, wearing a loose monastic robe, came noiselessly into the room I was using as a bedroom.
'Who are you writing to?'
'To Doña Margarita's private secretary.'
'To tell her what?'
'I'm telling her about the offering I made to the Apostle in the name of the Queen.'
There was a moment's silence. Concha, who was standing with her hands resting on my shoulders, bent over me so that her hair brushed my forehead.
'Are you writing to her secretary or to the Queen herself?'
I turned round slowly and said coldly:
'I'm writing to her secretary. Don't tell me you're jealous of the Queen as well.'
She protested warmly:
'No, no, of course I'm not!'
I sat her down on my knees and, stroking her, said:
'Doña Margarita isn't like the other Queen...'
'Much of what they said about the other Queen was untrue anyway. My mother always said so, and she was one of her ladies-in-waiting.'
Seeing me smile, poor Concha looked away, blushing adorably.
'You men are always determined to believe anything bad you hear about women. Besides, a Queen is always surrounded by enemies.'
Seeing that a smile still lingered on my lips, she tweeked my black moustaches with her pale fingers and exclaimed:
'You've got a very wicked tongue on you!'
She stood up, intending to leave. I caught her hand and held her back.
'Stay, Concha. Go on, stay.'
'You know I can't, Xavier.'
I said again:
'No, no. I want to go to confession tomorrow. I'm afraid of offending God.'
Then, rising to my feet, I said with icy, scornful politeness:
'So, I have a rival already?'
Concha looked at me pleadingly.
'Don't torment me, Xavier.'
'I will torment you no longer. I shall leave the palace tomorrow morning.'
She burst out tearfully, angrily:
And she almost tore off the white, monastic robe that she usually wore to visit me at that hour and stood there naked and trembling. I folded her in my arms.
'My poor love!'
She looked at me through her tears, distraught and pale.
'You're so cruel. Now, I won't be able to go to confession tomorrow.'
I kissed her and said by way of consolation:
'We will go to confession together the day that I leave.'
I saw the flicker of a smile in her eyes.
'If you hope to win your freedom with a promise like that, you're very much mistaken.'
'Because you are my prisoner here for ever.'
And she laughed, putting her arms about my neck. Her long hair came unpinned and, taking the sombre, perfumed wave of black hair in her hands, she began beating me with it. I sighed:
'Ah, the scourge of God!'
'Be quiet, you heretic!'
'Do you remember when that used to make me almost faint away with pleasure?'
'I remember all the mad things you said and did.'
'Whip me, Concha, whip me as if I were a holy Nazarene. Whip me till I die!'
'Be quiet, be quiet!'
She glanced away, her hands trembling as they gathered up her dark, fragrant tresses.
'You frighten me when you say such ungodly things, yes, frighten me, because it isn't you saying them: it's Satan. Even your voice is different. It's Satan's voice!'
A shudder ran through her and she closed her eyes. My arms wound lovingly about her. It seemed to me that a prayer still hovered on her lips and, as I sealed those lips with mine, I mumbled, laughing:
'Amen! Amen! Amen!'
We were silent. Then her mouth moaned beneath my mouth:
Her body, imprisoned in my arms, trembled as if shaken by a mortal spasm. Her deathly pale head rolled back on the pillow. Her eyelids half opened and I watched as her eyes grew anguished, lightless.
As if fleeing from my kisses, her pale, cold mouth curled in a cruel grimace.
I sat up and cold-bloodedly, prudently removed her arms from around my neck - they were like wax. I hesitated, not knowing what to do.
Somewhere in the distance, dogs were barking. I slid silently to the floor. I picked up the candle and gazed on that now lifeless face and, with tremulous fingers, I touched her brow. The cold stillness of death terrified me. No, she could no longer answer me. I thought of running away and I cautiously opened a window. I peered out into the darkness, my scalp prickling, whilst on the other side of the room, the curtains round my bed flapped and the flames guttered on the candles in the silver candelabrum. Far off, the dogs were still barking; the wind sighed in the maze like a lost soul and, like our lives, the stars above flickered on and off.
I left the window open and, making no noise, as if I feared that my footsteps might awaken pale spectres, I went over to the door which, only moments before, she had opened with hands that then had trembled with passion and that now lay stiff and still. I peered warily out into the black corridor and stepped into the darkness. Everything in the Palace seemed to be asleep. I felt my way along the wall. My steps were so light as to be almost inaudible, but in my mind they seemed to set up fearsome echoes. At the far end of the anteroom, I saw the feeble glow of the lamp that lit the image of Jesus of Nazareth day and night. His holy face, deathly pale and partly covered by his matted hair, filled me with fear, more even than Concha's mortal face. I was shaking by the time I reached her bedroom and I stood there for a moment. I had noticed a line of light on the floor on the opposite side of the corridor which marked the door of the bedroom where my cousin Isabel was sleeping. I was afraid she might suddenly appear at her door, terrified, startled by the sound of my footsteps, and that her cries would raise the alarm throughout the palace. Then I decided to go into her room and tell her everything. I tiptoed over and, from the threshold, I called softly:
I stopped and waited. Nothing marred the silence. I took a few steps and called again:
Again no reply. Inside the vast room, my voice faded to nothing as if frightened of itself. Isabel was asleep. In the dim light of the candle flickering in its glass jar, in the dark depths of the room, I could just make out a wooden bed. In the silence, I could hear the slow rise and fall of my cousin Isabel's regular breathing. Her body was just a soft shape beneath the damask bedcover and her hair lay like a shadowy veil across the white pillows. I called again:
I had reached the head of the bed and my hands happened to touch her warm, bare shoulders. I felt her shudder. In a voice thick with emotion, I shouted:
She sat up with a start.
'Don't shout, Concha might hear.'
My eyes filled with tears and, bending low, I murmured:
'Poor Concha cannot hear us now!'
A lock of my cousin Isabel's hair brushed my lips, soft, tempting. I think I kissed it. I am a saint who always loves when he is sad. Poor Concha would have forgiven me up there in Heaven. Here on Earth, she knew how weak I was. Isabel murmured passionately:
'If I thought she could, I would lock the door.'
'The bedroom door, idiot, my door!'
I did not wish to arouse my cousin Isabel's suspicions. It would have been so painful and so ungallant to disabuse her. Isabel was very pious and knowing that she had misunderstood my intentions would have caused her immense suffering. All the Holy Patriarchs, all the Holy Fathers, all the Holy Monks could triumph over sin more easily than I! Those lovely women who went to tempt them were not their cousins. Fate plays some very cruel jokes! When Fate smiles on me, it always does so as it did then, with the macabre leer of one of those bandy-legged dwarves who gambol about in the moonlight amongst the chimneypots on the roofs of old castles. Her voice muffled by my kisses, Isabel said:
'I'm afraid Concha might appear at any moment.'
When I heard the poor dead woman's name, a shudder of fear ran through me, but Isabel must have thought it was simply passion. She never found out why I had come to her!
When my mortal eyes saw Concha's contorted, waxen face again, when my feverish hands touched her cold hands, I was filled with such terror that I began to pray and once more I was gripped by the temptation to flee through the open window out into the dark, mysterious garden. The silent night air shook the curtains and ruffled my hair. In the pallid sky, the stars were beginning to grow faint and the candles had gradually burned down, leaving only one alight. The old cypress trees growing outside the window lightly bent their withered tops and the white moon fled amongst them like the soul of a poor, pale wretch in torment. The distant call of a cockerel broke the silence, announcing the dawn. I shivered and looked with horror at Concha's inanimate body stretched out on my bed. Then, pulling myself together, I lit all the candles in the candelabrum and placed it at the door so that it would light the corridor. I went back into the room and, still terrified, I gathered that pale ghost up into my arms, she who had so often slept with my arms about her. I left the room bearing that sad burden. At the door, one of her hands, hanging limply down, collided with the candles and knocked over the candelabrum. On the floor, the candles continued to illumine my path with a sad, sputtering light. For a moment, I stood stock-still, listening. All I could hear was the bubbling water of the fountain in the maze. I continued on. There, at the far end of the anteroom, glowed the lamp illuminating Christ and I was afraid to walk past that livid, dishevelled image. I was afraid of those dead eyes! I retraced my steps.
To reach Concha's bedroom without going through the anteroom, I had to walk round the whole Palace. I did not hesitate. I walked through room after room, along pitch-dark corridors. Sometimes, the deserted corners of certain rooms were lit by moonlight. I slipped like a shadow past that long succession of shutterless windows with their worm-eaten frames, dark, mournful windows with leaded lights. I closed my eyes whenever I walked past a mirror, so as not to see myself. Sometimes, the darkness in the rooms was so dense that I got lost in them and had to feel my way ahead, stiff and frightened, holding Concha's body in one arm, the other stretched out in front of me so as not to stumble. Her sad, loose hair got caught on one of the doors. I felt about in the darkness trying to disentangle it, but I couldn't. It just became more and more entangled. My fearful, clumsy hand was shaking with the effort and the door kept opening and closing, creaking loudly. I was horrified to see that day was already breaking. I panicked and gave a tug. I thought Concha's body would slip out of my arms. I clung desperately on to it. Beneath her taut, sombre brow, her waxen lids were beginning to open. I had to pull fiercely and tear her beloved, fragrant locks.
At last, I reached her bedroom, the door of which stood open. The darkness there was mysterious, perfumed, warm, as if it were the keeper of the gallant secret of our assignations. What a tragic secret it would have to keep now! I lay Concha's body carefully down on her bed and crept away. At the door, I hesitated, irresolute, breathing hard. I wondered if I should go back and place one last kiss on those icy lips. I resisted the temptation, with all the scrupulousness of a mystic. I was afraid there might be something sacrilegious about the melancholy overwhelming me. The warm fragrance of her bedroom awoke in me, like a torment, voluptuous, sensual memories. I longed to savour the sweet pleasures of chaste fantasy, but I could not. The holiest things often suggest the strangest of devilish fancies, even to mystics. Still today, the memory of Concha dead evokes in me a depraved and subtle sadness. It scratches at my heart like a bright-eyed, tubercular cat. My heart bleeds and writhes and, inside me, laughs the Devil who knows how to turn all sorrows into pleasures. My memories, lost glories of the soul, are like a pale, ardent music, sad and cruel, to whose strange rhythms dances the forlorn ghost of all my loves. Poor, white ghost, the worms have eaten its eyes, and tears roll from the sockets. In the midst of a youthful ring of memories, it dances, not touching the floor, floating on a wave of perfume, the perfume that Concha used on her hair and that lives on after her. Poor Concha! All she left behind of her sojourn in life was a trail of perfume. But, then, perhaps not even the whitest and most chaste of lovers has ever been anything more than a lovely, enamelled bottle filled with aphrodisiac, nuptial perfumes.
María Isabel and María Fernanda announced themselves first by beating on the door with their childish hands. Then they shouted out in cool, crystalline voices that had the charm of fountains speaking to the grasses and the birds.
'Can we come in, Xavier?'
'Come in, my dears.'
It was already late morning and they had come at Isabel's behest to ask if I had had a good night, a sweet question that stirred feelings of remorse in my heart. The little girls stood next to me at the balcony window looking out onto the garden. The wild, green branches of a fir tree scraped against the sad, mournful panes. The fir tree shivered in the mountain wind and its branches scratched at the window as if the old, shady garden were sighing with longing for the children's games to commence. A flock of pigeons was fluttering about near the maze; then out of the cold, blue sky came a hawk with broad, dark wings.
'Kill it, Xavier! Kill it!'
I fetched my gun which was lying gathering dust in a corner and hurried back to the window. The little girls were clapping and shouting:
'Kill it! Kill it!'
At that moment, the hawk dropped down on the flock of pigeons which flew off, startled. I put my rifle to my eye and when the way was clear, I fired. A few dogs in nearby farms barked a response. The hawk plummeted to earth and the little girls ran out and brought it back, carrying it by the wings. Blood was staining its breast feathers. They bore off the hawk in triumph. I called to them, suddenly filled by a new anxiety.
'Where are you going?'
They turned at the door, smiling and happy:
'Mama will get such a fright when she wakes up!'
'It'll be such a lark!'
I did not dare to stop them and I remained alone, my soul plunged in sadness. Such a bitter wait, such a timeless moment on that joyful morning all clothed in light, until, from the depths of the palace, came innocent moans, heartrending cries and terrible sobs! Faced with the cold ghost of death scything through all the dreams in my soul's garden, I felt a dumb, desperate anguish. Ah, the lovely dreams that are love's enchantment! It was a strange sadness as if evening had fallen over my life which, like a sad winter's day, had ended only to begin once again with a sunless dawn. Poor Concha was dead. That dream-flower to whom my every word had seemed beautiful was dead, that flower to whom my every gesture seemed sovereign. Would I ever find such another pale princess with sad, spellbound eyes, someone who would always think me magnificent? The thought that I might not made me weep and I wept like an ancient god at the death of the cult that once worshipped him.