“An Unequal Marriage” by Vicente Riva Palacio (1832-1896)
(published here with the permission of the translator, Toshiya Kamei)
It was starting to get dark by the time we reached Covadonga. A crescent moon was almost halfway across the sky, and its weak light was mixed with the last hints of twilight, giving a fantastic aspect to all objects, amplifying their proportions with indecisive silhouettes.
For days we had been dreaming of Covadonga. With a feverish impatience to visit that historic place, we revived its traditions and chronicles in our minds and expanded the legends that sprouted from each one of the cantos inspired by those rocks, sacred for the Spaniards.
Thus, as we arrived and descended into the ravine at the mysterious hour, our imagination was piqued, and we thought we were hearing the shriek of the Moors and the hoarse cry of the Christians; and we gazed at those soaring crags in wonderment, and Covadonga seemed like an enormous granite shell that had closed its huge valves to shelter a band of heroes like a pearl, and opened them later to disperse the seeds of a people who would grow stronger every day, reconquer their homeland, and wave their flags triumphantly over half the world in the sixteenth century.
* * *
We took shelter in an inn and, at eight in the evening, we sat to eat with the few pilgrims who were there.
The after-dinner conversation took on a pleasantly informal tone, because there were only a few of us and we all had come in search of the impression the place produced in us.
Across the table from me sat a young German man, who looked about thirty-five, and at his side a woman of about fifty-five. It was impossible to tell at first sight whether she was his mother or wife.
The two spoke correct Spanish and were tactful enough not to say anything in German to each other, for fear that we wouldn’t understand it, thus proving to us, though indirectly, they were persons of distinction.
Halfway through the meal, we already knew the woman was the wife of the German, whose name was Leopoldo Schloesing; but to our surprise, his wife called him Guillermo, while he was Don Leopoldo to us.
Perhaps Leopoldo came to notice that we were amazed by this, besides their great age difference and their deep affection for each other, as, turning to me, he said, “Do you think my wife is older than I am?”
I didn’t know how to answer him, because saying no was a lie that my eyes would have given away; yet saying yes was a lack of manners toward the woman, who gave a sweet smile when she heard her husband’s question and looked at him with a deep tenderness.
“Well, no, señor,” continued the German. “I’m at least eight years older than she is, and I can assure you of that on my word of honor.”
None of us dared say a word. Had he said it in jest, even though laughing at it would probably have offended the woman, we would have given way to laughter; but as he said it, his features assumed a solemn expression, his voice had prophetic vibrations, and he looked beyond us, his eyes lost in infinity.
“It’s not a secret, nor do I want to make a mystery out of what I’m going to tell you. Surely you will take me for a madman and feel pity for my poor Margarita, but it’s true.”
The woman squeezed her husband’s arm, laid her head on his shoulder, and we saw her eyes well up in tears.
It seemed as though we were dreaming, and even a servant and two girls attending to the table stood thunderstruck with the plates and cutlery, which they washed in a basin at the back of the dining room.
The lamps seemed to have dimmed. The man had begun to move us, even fascinate us.
“I was twenty-eight years old; I was honest, hardworking, and intelligent; with all my heart, I loved Margarita, who was then twenty and lived with her kind mother in Hamburg; not rich, but not destitute either. Her father, at his death, had left them income, well invested, enough to cover the needs of the two women, who had no other relative.
“Our love had grown when we were children, and I was waiting to make my fortune to marry Margarita; well, for that, I not only had her mother’s approval, but the kind woman also loved me like her own son.
“In those days a brilliant enterprise in America fell into my lap, which would take too long to explain but, after a year’s absence from my country, it would quadruple my investment; but I didn’t have the capital, and it came to worry me so much that Margarita and her mother noticed something was wrong with me, and they urged me to reveal my secret. How could I have refused? They were my only loved ones on earth! When I told them everything, they tried to comfort me; but I was inconsolable as I felt a fortune slipping through my fingers and, with it, my happiness, because the realization of my marriage depended on it.
“A few days later, on arriving at Margarita’s house, the two women flung themselves into my arms, shedding happy tears. They had sold everything they owned and were offering it to me for my enterprise.
“I adamantly refused to accept it, but they begged, cried, and insisted on it, making me understand that we were all part of the same family, that we had to share one another’s joys, sorrows, and hopes, and if that money was lost, Margarita and I would marry penniless, and I would support the family with the blessed fruits of my labor. I couldn’t possibly refuse the offer. I accepted it: the day for my departure arrived; I said goodbye to Margarita and her mother, and set sail for America.”
* * *
The German remained silent for a while, during which all eyes were fixed on him.
“I already know,” he continued in a solemn tone. “There’s no need to ask you if you believe in metempsychosis, the Pythagorean theory of the transmigration of the soul, or the doctrine of reincarnation, which has been upheld with such vigor by apostles of Spiritism like Allan Kardec and Juan Renau, because all those theories must be nonsense to you. I was convinced of the same thing.
“On the sixth day of the voyage, we were enveloped in one of those dense fogs prevalent in the northern seas. We sailed among reefs as the captain took precautions: a large lamp high above one of the masts; a bell ringing all the time; the steam engine letting out a long and loud groan every few minutes, and sailors keeping watch on the spars.
“But all was in vain: I was on deck and suddenly saw the fog before us grow dark; enveloped in the fog, as if rising from the bottom of the sea, an enormous steamer came crashing against us, making a terrible noise I can’t explain. Our ship split, and I don’t know what happened next, because I felt faint, and vaguely sensed murmurs, music, and distress.
“I recovered my senses, but I wasn’t who I had been. I felt myself light; suspended in space, I saw the scene of the catastrophe far away, just a patch of fog on the vast sea, because the earth, without dragging me along, was floating dizzily in infinity. Then I realized I was dead. I began to acquire the marvelous perfection of the spirit: I could see a great distance, and among many cadavers floating on the waves I recognized mine.
“I suffered the most terrible sorrow, thinking of Margarita and her mother, their pain, their solitude, the miserable life ahead of them, and decided to return to the world to help them.”
Leopoldo became quiet again, and no one dared look at the others, for fear of seeing a mocking face.
We didn’t believe this story, but we were so drawn in that we wanted to believe it.
“A year later,” continued Leopoldo, “I had reincarnated in the body of a child, the only son of an affluent businessman in the city where Margarita lived.
“Until I turned seven, my memories were dormant, but they awoke clearly and brightly with the awareness of the mission I had imposed on myself.
“It was time to give her proof so that she would believe me. I searched for Margarita as well as a child could, who was only taken to parks for fresh air.
“Fortunately for me, one afternoon, while I was playing with other children, she passed where we were, and the moment I saw her, I went to her and lavished her with caresses. She was taken aback by that sudden display of affection, and even more when I told her, ‘Come tomorrow at this time, because I have something very beautiful to tell you.’
“No doubt she thought these were the things of a child, but the following day she was there. We sat on a stone bench while my governess, on another bench farther away, was completely absorbed in reading a novel. Then I told Margarita that I, young Leopoldo, was Guillermo: I thought she was going to go mad, because to prove that truth, I repeated our conversations word for word and the most insignificant details of my past life, but trying to hide my plans for the future. I learned that Margarita’s mother had died of grief on hearing the news of the catastrophe, and that she, always sad, supported herself by giving music lessons.
“From that time on, Margarita recovered her cheerfulness, worked harder, saved to buy me a toy, and tried to see me everywhere: I felt the tenderness of a mother.
“I was twenty-eight; my father and mother had died, and I possessed a considerable fortune. I proposed marriage to her; she refused, citing our age difference, but I forced her: we have been together for eight years, and we are as happy as the first day of our marriage. Good night, señores, and each of you will have to judge my story for himself.”
“Good night,” we all said.
And Leopoldo, leading his wife by the arm, slowly left the dining room.
* * *
Without making any comment, we all went to bed then, but I could hardly sleep a wink, wondering whether there was any truth in that story, whether they were both mad or a madman and a martyr.
When we got up the next morning, the Germans had already left Covadonga.