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"The mule and the ox"
|Biografía de Benito Pérez Galdós en Wikipedia|
|The mule and the ox|
POOR little one had ceased to moan; she turned her head slightly and stared with wide eyes at those who stood around her bed; her breath came fainter, fainter, until it stopped altogether. She was dead. The guardian angel uttered a deep sigh, unfolded his wings, and flew away.
The poor mother could not believe in the reality of so much sorrow; still Celinina's exquisite face was growing diaphanous and yellow, like wax; her limbs were cold; and her body finally became rigid and hard like that of a doll. Then the mother was led away from the alcove, while the father, the nearest relatives, two or three friends, and the servants performed the last duties toward the dead child.
They dressed her in a beautiful gown of lawn that was as white and as sheer as a cloud, and covered with frills and laces that looked like foam. They put on her shoes, which were white too, and whose soles showed that they had taken but few steps. They braided her lovely dark chestnut hair, and arranged it gracefully about her head, intertwining it with blue ribbons. They tried to find fresh flowers, but the season was too far advanced, and there were none to be had; so they made her a wreath of artificial ones, selecting only those which were beautiful and which might have been mistaken for real blossoms just from the garden.
Then a very repulsive man brought a box, just a trifle larger than the case of a violin, lined with blue silk and elaborately adorned with white satin and silver braid. Celinina was laid in it: an exquisite soft pillow was placed under her head, so that her position might not seem strained; and when she had been carefully and tenderly fixed in her funereal couch, they crossed her little hands, tied them together with a ribbon, and slipped a bunch of white roses between them, roses so artistically fashioned that they seemed to be the very children of Spring.
The women threw gorgeous draperies over a table, adorned it like an altar, and laid the coffin upon it. They arranged other altars, too, after the manner of church canopies, with fine white curtains, gracefully caught back on either side.
They brought a great quantity of saints and images from other rooms, which they disposed with great art in symmetrical groups, forming a sort of funereal court around the departed angel. They also brought in, without losing a moment, the great candelabrum from the parlor, and lighted several dozen tapers, which shed their mournful glow upon Celinina.
Then they kissed the child's frozen cheek again and again, and their pious task was done.
From the other end of the house, from the depths of the bedrooms, came the moans of a man and a woman, the heart-rending lamentations of the parents who could not be convinced of the truth of those aphorisms about angels in heaven, administered by friends as a sort of moral sedative on these occasions. They believed, on the contrary, that this world is the proper and natural habitation for angels; nor could they admit the theory that the death of a grown person is far more lamentable and disastrous than that of a child.
Mingled with their grief was that profound pity which the death-agony of an infant always inspires, and to them there was no sorrow in life like that which was tearing their very vitals.
A thousand memories and painful visions struck at their hearts like so many daggers. The mother's ears rang with Celinina's lispings, that enchanting baby-talk that gets everything wrong, and converts the words of our language into delicious philological caricatures, which caricatures, flowing from rosy mouths, are the tenderest and most affecting music to a mother's heart.
Nothing so characterizes a child as his style, his spontaneous mode of expression, the art of saying everything with four letters, his prehistoric grammar, which is like the first sobbing of the words at the dawn of humanity, his simple rules of declension and conjugation, innocent corrections of the languages which usage has legitimatized. The vocabulary of a child of three, like Celinina, is the real literary treasure of a family. How could her mother ever forget the little pink tongue that said "wat " for hat, and called a bean a "ween " !
No matter where she turned, the good woman's eyes were sure to fall upon some of the toys with which Celinina had cheered the last days of her life; and as these were the days that preceded Christmas, the floor was strewn with little clay turkeys on wire legs, a Saint Joseph that had lost both hands, a manger in which lay the Christ-Child, like a little pink ball, a wise man from the Orient mounted upon a proud, headless camel. What these poor little figures had endured during the past few days, dragged here and there, made to assume this or that posture, was known only to God, the mother, and the pure little spirit that had taken its flight.
All this broken statuary was imbued with Celinina's very soul, clothed with a peculiar sad light, which was the light from her, as it were. The mother trembled from head to foot as she gazed at them, and she felt that the wound had been dealt to her innermost being. Strange association of things! How all these broken pieces of clay seemed to weep! They seemed so grieved, so full of intense sorrow, that the sight of them was scarcely less bitter than the spectacle of the dying child herself, who with appealing eyes begged her parents to take the pain away from her burning head. To the mother nothing could have been more pathetic than that turkey with its wire legs, which in its frequent changes of posture had lost its crest and its bill.
The mother's grief was surely intense, but the father's affliction was still more profound. She was transpierced with sorrow, his pain was aggravated by the stings of remorse. This is how it came about. It will no doubt seem very childish to some people; however, let them bear in mind that nothing is more open to childishness than a deep, pure sorrow, free from any touch of worldly interests or the secondary sufferings of unsatisfied egoism.
From the very first and all through her illness Celinina's mind was filled with dreams of Christmas, of the poetic celebration supremely delightful to children. We all know how they long for the joyful day, how crazed they are by the feverish yearning for presents and Bethlehem mangers, by the thought of how much they will eat, by the prospect of satiating themselves with turkey, sponge-cake, candied almonds, and nutpastes. Some little ones ingenuously believe that were they only allowed to do so, they might easily stow away in their stomachs all the displays of the Plaza Mayor and the adjacent streets.
Celinina in her intervals of relief gave her whole soul to the engrossing theme. Her little cousins, who came to sit with her, were older than she, and had exhausted the entire fund of human knowledge with regard to celebrations, presents, and Bethlehem mangers. The poor child's fancy and her longing for toys and sweets accordingly grew more and more excited as she listened to them. In her delirium, when the fever dragged her into its oven of torture, her prattle was of the things that preyed upon her mind; and it was all about beating drums and tam-tams, and singing Christmas carols. The darkness of her brain was peopled with turkeys, crying, gobble! gobble! and chickens that said, peep! peep! mountains of nut-pastes that reached up to the skies, forming a guadarrama of almonds, Bethlehem mangers full of lights, and in which there were fifty thousand million figures at the very least, great bouquets of sweetmeats, trees laden with as many toys as can be conceived by the most fecund Tyrolese imagination, the pond of the Retiro filled with almond soup, red gilt-heads looking up at the cooks with coagulated eyes, oranges falling from the skies in far greater quantities than the drops of water during a rainstorm, and thousands and thousands of other inexpressible prodigies.
Celinina was an only child; and when she was taken ill, her father's uneasiness and anxiety knew no limit. His business called him away during the day, but he managed to run in every now and then to see how the little invalid was. The disease pursued its course with treacherous alternatives, giving and withdrawing hope.
The good man had his misgivings. The picture of Celinina, lying in her little bed crushed with pain and fever, never left his mind for a moment. He was heedful of everything that might cheer her and brighten the gloom of her suffering, so ever)' night he brought home with him some Christmas present, something different every time, scrupulously avoiding sweets, however. One day he brought a flock of turkeys, so cleverly made, so lifelike, that one fairly expected to hear them gobble. The next night he drew one half of the Holy Family from his pockets, then again a little Saint Joseph, the manger and the portico of the Bethlehem stable. Once it was a superb drove of sheep driven by proud shepherds, and later on he brought some washer- women washing their clothes, and a sausage-maker selling sausages, and two Magi, one black and the other with a white beard and a golden crown. What did he not bring? He even brought an old woman very indecorously spanking a small boy for not knowing his lesson.
From what she had heard her cousins say about the requirements of a Bethlehem manger, Celinina knew that hers was incomplete, and this for want of two very important figures, the Mule and the Ox. Of course she had no idea of the significance of the Mule or the Ox; but in her thirst for absolute perfection of composition, she asked her solicitous father again and again for the two animals, which seemed to be about the only things that the good man had left in the toy shops.
He accordingly promised to bring them, and took a firm resolution not to come home without both beasts; but it happened that on that day, which was the 23d, he had an accumulation of things to do. Besides, as luck would have it, the drawing of the lottery took place just then, he was notified of having won a lawsuit, not to speak of the arrival of two affectionate friends who managed to keep in his way all the morning: so he came home without the Mule or the Ox.
Celinina was greatly disappointed when she found that he had not brought her the two jewels that were to complete her treasure. The good man was about to repair his fault immediately, but just then the doctor came in. Celinina had grown considerably worse during the day; and as his words were far from comforting, nobody thought of mules or oxen.
On the 24th the poor father resolved not to leave the house. For a brief moment, however, Celinina seemed so much better that her parents were wild with hope, and the father said joyously, "I am going right out to get those things."
But it was not a moment before Celinina fell into an intense fever, just as a bird, wounded in its upward flight through the pure regions of the air, drops swiftly to the ground. She tossed about, trembling and suffocating in the hot arms of her disease, that tightened around her and shook her violently as if to eject her life. In the confusion of her delirium, on the broken waves of her thoughts, like the one thing saved from a cataclysm, floated the persistent yearning, the idea of that longed-for mule and that sighed tor ox.
The father rushed out of the house like a madman, then suddenly, "This is no time to think of figures for a Bethlehem manger," thought he.
And running here and there, climbing stairs and ringing door-bells, he succeeded in getting seven or eight doctors, whom he took home with him. Celinina should be saved at any cost.
But apparently it was not the will of God that the seven or eight disciples of Esculapius should interfere with the orders he had given, so Celinina grew worse and worse, struggling with indescribable anguish, like a bruised butterfly quivering with broken wings on the ground. Her parents bent over her with wild anxiety, as though they expected to detain her in this world by the power of their will, as though they expected to arrest the rapid course of human disorganization, and breathe their own life into the little martyr, who was exhaling hers in a sigh.
From the street came the thumping of drums and the jingling of tambourines. Celinina opened her eyes ; and with an appealing look and a few solemn words, which seemed already the language of another world, she asked her father for that which he had failed to bring her. The father and mother, in their distress, thought of deceiving her; and with the hope of casting a ray of happiness through the misery of this supreme moment they handed her the turkeys, saying, " Look, my darling, here are the little mule and the little ox."
But Celinina, even at the point of death, was conscious enough to know that turkeys can never be anything but turkeys; and she pushed them away gently. From that time on she lay still with her great eyes fixed on her parents, and her little hand on her head to show them where the terrible pain was. That rhythmical sound which is like the last vibration of life gradually grew fainter and fainter, until it was hushed entirely, like the machinery of a clock that has stopped, and the dainty little girl was only an exquisite scrap of matter, inert, cold, and as white and transparent as the sublimated wax that burns on the altars.
Now you understand the father's remorse. To bring his little Celinina back to life he would have scoured the face of the earth and collected all the oxen and all the mules upon it. The thought of not having satisfied this innocent desire was the sharpest and coldest blade that pierced his heart. Vainly did he appeal to his reason; of what account was his reason. He was quite as much of a child as the little one asleep in the coffin, for he gave greater importance to a toy just then than to anything else on earth or in heaven.
The moans of despair at last died away in the house, as if grief, piercing its way into the very depths of the soul, which is its natural dwelling-place, had closed after it the windows of the senses, so as to be alone and luxuriate in itself.
This was Christmas Eve; and while stillness reigned in the home so recently visited by death, from all the other houses and from the streets of the city came the joyous roar of rude musical instruments and the clamorous voices of children and adults singing the advent of the Messiah. The shouts from the flat above could be heard in the very parlor where the dead child lay; and the pious women who sat with her were perturbed in their sorrow and their devout meditation. On the upper floor many small children, with a still greater number of large ones, happy papas and mammas, excited aunts and uncles, were celebrating Christmas and were going mad with delight before the most admirable Bethlehem manger that was ever dreamed of and the most luxuriant tree that ever grew toys and sweetmeats, and which bore on its limbs a thousand lighted tapers.
The parlor ceiling seemed to shake under the great commotion; the poor little corpse quivered in its blue coffin; and all the lights in the room oscillated as though they wished to proclaim that they too were somewhat tipsy. Two of the good women retired; one alone remained, but her head felt very heavy, no doubt because she had lost so much sleep on the preceding nights; so after a little her chin sank on her breast and everything melted from her consciousness.
The lights continued to waver, although there was no draught in the room. One might have believed that invisible wings were fluttering about the altar. The lace on Celinina's gown rose and fell; and the petals of her artificial flowers betrayed the passage of a playful breeze, or the soft touch of tender hands. Just then Celinina opened her eyes.
They filled the room with bright inquiring glances cast down and up and around her. She instantly unclasped her hands, the ribbon that bound them together offering no resistance ; and closing her little fists, she rubbed both eyes as children do when they awake. Then with a quick movement, and without the slightest effort, she sat up, and looking upward at the ceiling, she began to laugh, a peculiar inaudible laugh apparent to the eyes alone. The one sound that reached the ear was the rapid beating of wings, as if all the doves of the earth were flying in and out of the death- chamber, brushing their feathers against the walls and ceiling.
Then Celinina rose to her feet, stretched out her arms, and two short white wings sprouted from her shoulders. They flapped and beat for a few seconds; then she rose in the air and disappeared.
In the parlor everything remained as it was; the lights glowed on the altar, pouring copious streams of melted wax on the bobeches. The images all stood in their places without moving an arm or a leg or unsealing their austere lips. The good woman was plunged in a profound sleep which must have been a special blessing to her. Nothing had changed, except that the little blue coffin had been left empty.
What a royal celebration at the home of the Señores of tonight ! The house is filled with the thunder of drums. Children cannot be made to understand that they might enjoy things a great deal more if they only omitted the infernal noise of the warlike instrument. But this is not all. In order that no human tympanum may be left in condition to perform its natural functions the next day, they have added to the drum the thumping of the zambomba, that hellish contrivance whose sounds were intended to reproduce the growls of Satan. The symphony is completed by the tambourine, which, like the rattling of old tin pans, would irritate the most placid nerves; and still this discordant hubbub without rhythm or melody, more primitive than the music of savages, is inspiriting and cheerful on this particular night, and bears something of a distant likeness to a celestial choir.
The Bethlehem manger is not a work of art to the adults; but to the children the figures are so beautiful, there is such a mystic expression on their countenances and so much propriety in their costumes, that they scarcely believe them to be the work of human hands, and are inclined to lay it all to the industry of a certain class of angels who make a living by working in clay. The entrance of the stable, carved out of cork, and imitating a partly ruined Roman arch, is a dream of beauty; and the little river made of looking-glass, with its green spots representing aquatic growths and the moss of its banks, seems really to be rippling along the table with a soft murmur. The bridge over which the shepherds are coming is a masterpiece. Never before was pasteboard known to look so exactly like stone, a striking contrast this to the works of our modern engineers, who build bridges of stone, that look exactly like pasteboard. The mountain that rises in the centre of the landscape might be taken for a scrap of the Pyrenees; and its exquisite cottages, a trifle smaller than the figures, and its mimic trees with little limbs of real foliage are far more real than Nature.
But the most attractive, the most characteristic figures are those on the plain, the washerwomen washing clothes at the stream; the chicken and turkey tenders driving their flocks before them; then an officer of the civil guards taking two scamps off to jail ; gentlemen riding in luxurious carriages, brushing past the camel of the Magi ; and Perico, the blind man, playing on the guitar to a little group of people through which the shepherds have elbowed their way on their return from their worship at the manger. A tram-car runs along from one extremity of the landscape to the other, just exactly as it does in the Salamanca quarter; and as it has wheels and real tracks, it is kept going from east to west, much to the surprise of the black Magi, who cannot make out what sort of a machine it can possibly be.
The arch opens upon a beautiful square, in the centre of which stands a little glass aquarium. A short distance away a newsboy is selling papers, and two Majos are dancing prettily. The capital pieces of this marvellous people of clay, those upon which all eyes are centred, are the fritter-vender and the old woman selling chestnuts on the street corner; and the children fairly split their sides at the sight of the small ragamuffin, who holds out a lottery ticket to the old chestnut woman, while with the other hand he quietly pilfers her nuts.
In a word, there is no Bethlehem manger in all Madrid that can be compared to this one; for this is one of the great homes of the capital, and the parlors are crowded with the best-bred and most beautiful children to be found within a radius of twenty streets.
And how about the tree? The tree is composed of oak and cedar limbs. The solicitous friend of the family who expended no small amount of patience and ingenuity in its construction declares that a more finished and perfect piece of work never left his hands. It would be impossible to count the presents that dangle from its branches. According to the computation of a small boy present, they are more numerous than the grains of sand on the seashore. There are sweetmeats nestling in shells of frilled paper, mandarins which are the wee babes of the oranges, chestnuts draped in mantillas of silver paper, tiny boxes containing bonbons of homoeopathic proportions, figures of every variety, on foot and on horseback, in a word, everything that God ever created with a view to its being perfected later on by the confectioner or sold by Scropp, has been put here by hands which are as liberal as they are skilful. This tree of life is illumined by such an abundance of little wax tapers that according to the testimony of a four-year-old guest there were more lights there than the stars in heaven.
The delight of this youthful swarm is not comparable to any human sentiment. It is the ineffable joy of the celestial choirs in presence of the Supreme Good and Supreme Beauty. They are almost reasonable in their overflowing satisfaction; and they stand half perplexed in a seraphic ecstasy, with their whole soul in their eyes, anticipating all that they are going to eat, floating like angels of heaven in the pure ether of sweet and delicious things, in the perfume of flowers and cinnamon, in the increate essence of youthful greediness and play.
But they are suddenly startled by a sound which does not proceed from them. They all look up at the ceiling; and as they see nothing there, they all look at one another again and begin to laugh. A great rushing sound is heard, the rustle of wings as they brush against the walls and strike the ceiling. Had they been blind, they might have believed that all the doves from all the dovecots in the universe had gotten into the parlor. But they saw nothing; that is, no wings, absolutely none.
What they did see, however, was phenomenal and inexplicable enough in itself. All the figures of the Bethlehem manger began to move; they were all very quietly being changed around. The tram-car made an ascension to the very pinnacle of the mountain; and the Magi walked straight into the river on all fours. The turkeys passed under the arch and entered the stable without saying by your leave; and Saint Joseph stepped out in a state of perplexity, trying to make out what could be the cause of such extraordinary confusion. Then a number of figures were very coolly tumbled off on the floor. At first they had been moved about very carefully, but suddenly there was a great stir, then a perfect hurly-burly, in which a hundred thousand busy hands seemed eager to turn everything topsy-turvy. It was a miniature of the universal cataclysm. Its secular cement giving way, the mountain was levelled ; the river changed its course ; and scattering the broken bits of mirror from its bed, it overflowed the plain disastrously. The very roofs of the cottages were sunken in the sand. The Roman arch trembled as though it were beaten by fierce winds; and as a number of little lights went out, the sun was obscured, and so were the luminaries of the night.
In the midst of the general stupor that such a phenomenon naturally produced, some of the little ones laughed wildly, while others cried. A superstitious old lady said,
"Don't you know who is doing all this? Why, the dead children who are in heaven and whom Father God permits to come down on Christmas Eve and play with the Bethlehem mangers."
After a little it was all over; the rushing sound of beating wings grew fainter and fainter.
Many of those who were present proceeded to investigate the damages. One gentleman said,
"Why, the table has been broken down and all the figures have been upset?"
Then everybody began to pick up the figures and put them in their places. After counting them over and identifying them, it was found that some were missing. They looked everywhere, and looked again, but to no effect. There were two figures wanting, the Mule and the Ox.
Just a little before dawn the disturbers were on the road to heaven, as merry as crickets, frisking and skipping about among the clouds. There were millions and millions of them, all beautiful, pure, divine, with short white wings beating faster than those of the swiftest birds on earth. This white swarm was greater than anything that the eye can focus in visible space, and it spread over the moon and the stars, and the firmament seemed filled with little fleecy clouds.
"Hurry, hurry, my dears!" said a voice among them; " the first thing you know it will be day, and Grandpapa God will scold us for being late. If the truth must be told, the Bethlehem mangers this year are not worth a penny. When I recall those of former times"
Celinina was one of this merry throng, but as this was her first experience in those altitudes, she felt somewhat giddy.
"Come over here," one of them cried to her; "give me your hand, and you will fly straighter but what is that? What have you there?"
" 'Em 's my sings," said Celinina, pressing two rude little clay figures to her bosom.
"Listen, my dear , throw those away. It is very evident that you are just from the earth. Let me tell you how it is. Although we have all the toys we want in heaven, eternal and ever-beautiful toys, Grandpapa God lets us go down on Christmas Eve just to stir up the Bethlehem mangers a little. You needn't think they are not having a glorious time in heaven too tonight ; and for my part, I believe they send us off on account of our being so noisy. But Grandpapa God lets us go down into the houses only on condition that we take away nothing, and here you have pilfered this! "
These weighty reasons did not seem to impress Celinina as they should have done, for pressing the animals more closely to her bosom, she merely repeated,
"My sings, 'em 's my sings."
"Listen, goosy," continued the other; " if you don't do what I tell you, you'll get us all into trouble. Fly back and leave them, for they are of the earth, and on the earth they should remain. Don't be foolish; you can go and be back in less than a minute. I'll wait for you on this cloud."
Celinina was at last convinced and started off to restore her theft to the earth.
This is how it came to pass that Celinina's corpse, that which had been her visible self, was found the next morning holding two little clay animals instead of the bunch of artificial flowers. No one could solve the mystery, not even the women who kept watch, nor the father, nor the mother; and the beautiful little girl, for whom so many tears were shed, went down into the earth clasping the Mule and the Ox in her cold little hands.
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