Vol 1 No 9
The Laugh - part I
When Raymond and Casandra fell in love, she had been eight years the wife of Alejandro, an officer in one of the republic’s oldest battleships. Her divorce and subsequent remarriage to Raymond, an Englishman, had no legal value in the Roman Catholic republic; but, as they did what everyone did in such circumstances — divorce and remarry through a neighbouring country — they encountered inconvenience only when filling in forms.
Nevertheless, old doña Inés, Casandra’s mother, a strict Catholic, of Spanish descent — though there was talk of Indian somewhere — refused to recognize the divorce, and, in consequence, the second husband.
As far as she was concerned, it was Alejandro who was and always would be her daughter’s husband, and, which perhaps meant more to her, would therefore always be her son-in-law; almost, in fact, her son.
Raymond she would not receive; she would not even allow his name to be uttered in her presence.
Raymond came to understand that, according to doña Inés, he was ‘a bad one’, had had many women, had abandoned his own wife, to run after another man’s — a view of him to which, besides being untrue, he knew the old woman to have been adroitly assisted by Casandra’s first husband.
For Alejandro had told her in long letters how ‘el otro’ (‘the other one’, as he called Raymond), had bought Casandra a motor car, thus accomplishing a rapid and easy conquest of her; how the President of the Republic had threatened personally to deprive him of his commission, because of the disgrace of the divorce (which, reflected Raymond ironically, was not a divorce).
Doña Inés wrote back that she understood, that he must have patience and faith, to see what God would decide. The divorce, in fact, drew them closer together.
Some two, or it may have been three years later Casandra wrote, inviting her father to the small apartment in which she and Raymond lived in the capital.
When her letter arrived at the flat-roofed house of her parents in the little pueblo of Cañada de Lopez, there blew up a storm such as there never had been in the Guimera household — and there had been many — but Guimera determined to have a look at last at the second husband. He went, leaving the old woman trembling.
The old man, who knew his daughter to possess his own character, was amused to see that ‘el inglés’, as at first he called Raymond, had evidently tamed her. It was a sort of vicarious compliment.
The younger, in his turn, was amused at the other, who, like a bull smarting under the banderillas, ravaged the small apartment, uttering the coarsest of jests (‘puteando’, as they called it); who ate disgustingly (‘but mercifully at full speed’ Raymond said afterwards to Casandra); and who, mocking his sixtyeight years, restlessly coursed the capital for entertainment from sunrise until after the theatres closed at one or two in the morning. He appreciated Guimera because of his directness, absence of complexes and arrière-pensées — refreshing change, he thought, from the society of his youth.
— Your old man, he said to Casandra, as soon as they were alone for a moment, is so normal, he’s almost animal.
The impression was strengthened one afternoon when, abandoning the amusements of the city, the three went to a pueblito in the province, to attend a horse-breaking fair, at which at one moment the old man, pounding his glass on the table, shouted to an acquaintance:
— Cheé! Pancho! Traigame una morocha. (Get hold of a black-haired one for me.)
To Guimera it mattered little whether she were pretty or not.
Although Raymond was still inclined to prefer subtlety to straightforwardness, finesse to ingenuousness, yet each man discerned in the other something they knew to be in themselves: a core that would not break.
Guimera returned to Cañada de López enchanted with his visit. For several hours he railed at his wife that Raymond was the very man for their daughter, that he would keep her in order as Alejandro had never been able to do, and, moreover, although clearly he was not demonstrative, he loved Casandra. Therefore, doña Inés had better stop living in the past, idolizing her daughter’s first husband, and instead face the present, which contained the second.
The old woman, however, was adamant: not only did she still refuse to admit Raymond’s name in the house; she maintained the fiction of Casandra’s first marriage never having broken. To her neighbours, continuing to ask after Alejandro, she naturally continued to reply in such words as: ‘He’s well, thank you; very well. I’m hoping he will soon get leave, so that the two of them can come together next time.’
She loved Alejandro, because he had had time for her, used to send her little presents from the ports at which his ship called (when it put to sea), and had sat for hours, telling her of his life at sea — something she would die without seeing. These talks had been replaced by the letters — by reminders.
— Alejandro, she said to Casandra on one of her visits, always writes to me, and sends me little things. His letters remind of those happy days, when you and he used to come here. I’m so happy he’s never forgotten me.
At this, Casandra, sickened at last, flashed out:
— How can you go on talking like that? The pair of you are like a couple of disparate lovers!
But after some three more years, the surrogate son of doña Inés took a new mother-in-law. Casandra at once sent the news to her father.
Guimera was pleased. — Now, he said to his wife, Alejandro’s married again. You can stop all this damned tomfoolery.
— What tomfoolery? said his wife obstinately.
— What do you think I mean? All this nonsense about Alejandro, of course. He’s been your son-in-law for six years longer than he should have been; now he’s someone else’s.
The old woman’s reaction astonished him.
— I refuse to believe what you have told me, she said calmly.
— You refuse to believe it! You mean you’re not going to recognize your true son-in-law?
— I just don’t believe it; that’s all.
— But you’ve read Casandra’s letter!
Compressing her lips, she muttered stubbornly:
— It makes no difference; Alejandro has told me nothing of all this.
— Pucha! You mean you don’t believe your own daughter!
Quavering, but determined, she answered:
— It’s all ridiculous tittle-tattle. I won’t believe any of it — not until I hear from Alejandro himself.
At this, Guimera stormed out of the room. He was angry not only with his wife, but at the difficulty of disproving her. The little pueblo in which they lived, hundreds of miles from the capital, was just an island in an ocean of grass. Most of the inhabitants did not even know the name of the President.
For the moment he could do nothing more.
However, one thing eventually became certain, something even doña Inés could not deny: the letters from Alejandro ceased.
There came and went about two more years, before Casandra learned that her first husband had been given a minor post on a naval mission to London, that he had taken his wife, who had presented him there with a son.
She wrote to her father, who lost no time in passing the news to doña Inés.
— Now, he said with heavy satisfaction, you should be convinced, woman, and perhaps we can see an end to this whole stupid business.
This time to his anger was added astonishment: his wife refused to accept the report as genuine. — Alejandro, she said stubbornly, would have written and told me, if it had been true.
Guimera exploded. — If I know anything about Alejandro, that’s the last thing he would have done. In any case he hasn’t written to you for two years now. Why the devil does he have to write and tell you everything?
Mechanically she repeated:
— Alejandro would have written and told me this himself.
— Alejandro! A la mierda with Alejandro! shouted the old man in a rage. He doesn’t even belong to this family any more. Don’t you realize that? He belongs to another family!
As he thought, this roused her.
— It’s lies, all lies! she cried. You’re all conspiring to deceive me. But you won’t succeed. Alejandro and Casandra are man and wife; they were married in the church. Nothing can alter that.
Had she been well, Guimera (who had little time for the church) would have beaten her. But in the last two years she had been ailing from a strange malady, whose nature remained unknown, principally because Guimera believed hospitals to be a waste of time and money. As a concession, he allowed the local doctor to visit her, because he flattered her, made her feel important — something he himself never did.
But the pain had become so insupportable, that finally he consented — mainly owing to pressure from Casandra — to send his wife to the hospital at Santa Teresa, the capital of the province, some 150 miles distant.
The doctors had pronounced an immediate operation imperative.
Afterwards, refusing her husband’s surprising offer to let her stay at the hospital to convalesce, she insisted on returning home, where for most of the day she lay in bed.
It was in this vulnerable position that her daughter found her on her next visit.
Casandra this time came provided, having obtained through her own private channels a copy of the diplomatic magazine, in which appeared a photograph of Alejandro, his new wife and, large as life, the newly christened baby in the arms of the republic’s London ambassador.
— Now, mama, you are the only person in the world who does not believe the truth.
She then left her mother’s room, without another word. By this time she knew her mother’s character. She was not surprised, then, a few days after this brief conversation, to hear the old woman say:
— Bueno, hija, show me a photograph of el otro the next time you come to see me.
Casandra, who had kept one ready for several years, brought it out, placed it suddenly in her mother’s hand. Startled, the old woman gazed at it for some moments. Her lips turned down slightly.
— M-m-mmm, she said. Nowhere near as handsome as Alejandro . . . Well, I’ll receive him. You can bring him, when you like.
The object of these deliberations, however, had by this time lost his interest, which was replaced by idle curiosity.
It would be nice, he thought, if the old girl would take to me, and I to her — though nobody seems to have considered that — but if not, then: what the hell?
He was, he reflected, nearly forty, had lost even his dislike of ‘in-laws’, as for him they were odiously named. It had become with him a question of liking people, or not — simpler. Old Guimera he treated as an equal, not as a father-in-law — such a conception indeed had for him something of the ridiculous —; and he said ‘tu’ to him because he conceived of the relationship as one of friendship, nothing more, and nothing less.
As for doña Inés (and that companion housekeeper he knew she had, Lucia) — they could think what they liked.
Yet he was left with curiosity as to what would happen, when at last the old woman and he confronted one another. For he could not quite believe in the change. People of that age, he thought, did not change fundamental beliefs from one day to the next: if anything, they hardened in their matrices. He found it even more difficult to believe that she could have undone her Spanish — and part Indian? — pride (to say nothing of the dictates of her religion). He had not forgotten Casandra telling him how her mother’s brother, as a young man, suffering from gangrene, had, on learning that the transfusions had completely changed his blood, torn off his dressings, preferring to bleed to death.
Evidently, then, it went deeper than the blood.
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