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XII
THE PAST

THE coconut palms rose straight to heaven, bending pliably to the western breeze; their heads tapped gently against each other and a murmur of secrets sighed overhead. From the shifting shreds of sky the sun fell upon the sands in heavy gold spots. To the east, through the lithe, silver trunks, the vivid green of the rice fields flashed; to the west a tawny thread of beach banked up the rippling tide.

In the darkness of the recess a frail hut of nipa leaves and bamboo slowly shaped itself as I advanced, and suddenly a shrill voice, rasping as the violin note of the tyro, pierced the peace of the place. In the doorway, at the head of the cane ladder, old Marietta was gesticulating.

"Oh, señor," she called asthmatically; "pray come in; visit your humble servant. The house is yours, the tuba is fresh, and coconuts are in the trees."

"Not to-day, Marietta; not to-day," I called back, "I'm going on to Suay; I can't stop."

She threw her arms up in consternation. "To Suay, señor, to Suay? José-Maria! do you not see the baguio coming? Soon it will be upon you, the trees will bend, the coconuts will fall, and you will die!"

The typhoon of the Philippines is not to be disdained. A picture formed in my mind of falling trees, rent bridges, melted roads. I stopped, hesitating, looked up at the blue sky above, listened to the regular breath of the wind. "Nonsense!" I said, and just then a sudden gust screeched overhead; the coconuts bent in half circles, snapped back, bent again with weird elasticity. Before my mind could fairly seize them, before the impression of them could be more than hazy and faint as those of a dream, these manifestations ceased. The wind fell dead, the trees came back to equilibrium. A heavy torpor descended upon the land.

"I'll come in, Marietta," I decided, "and you'll tell me more of the Negritos in the hills."

She did not answer, but waited for me at the head of the bamboo ladder—a weird, dried-up mummy of a woman, with teeth corroded by the betel-nut, and eyes that flashed hard beneath the heavy, yellow folds of the lids—an old witch, fit for broomstick rides and the nightmares of children. Inside, I sat down upon the bench by the window while she squatted upon the bamboo-strip floor, a big cheroot tied up with hemp fibre in her mouth, a hollow coconut filled with tuba at her side. But she did not speak. A strange taciturnity was upon her; she sat there speechless, motionless, like some monstrous idol, her lids half-dropped over eyes that showed opaque and dead.

"Well, Marietta," I said at length; "what about that coconut milk you promised me?"

"Oh, señor, pardon me, pardon your servant. 'Tis the baguio. When I feel the baguio coming I forget; I think of other days."

She half rose, then sank again upon her heels, her mind refusing to stay with the present.

"For there were other days, señor," she said gently; "ah, yes, far other days!"

She rocked herself slowly to and fro, her face in her hands. Outside, the heavy torpor was suddenly torn by a shriek in the upper layers of air. A few great drops pattered resoundingly upon the nipa roof, then heat and silence reigned again, with the torment of the woman's soul.

Curiously I looked upon the old crone. She sat there rocking gently from side to side, her lips bubbling in meaningless mutters. Then her yellow paw crept down her arid bosom, fumbled beneath her camisa, and reappeared with something in it that flashed gold. She pressed it to her withered lips—and saw that it was a locket—pressed it to her withered lips with a singular intensity of passion; pressed it there again and again—and that sudden flash of something long gone, of a spark, dying, perhaps, but which in that ruined body should have been long dead, moved me with uneasiness, as if I were watching, and a party to, a sacrilege.

But she dropped her hands upon her lap in a gesture of infinite hopelessness and she began to speak, to speak in a queer sing-song, a monotonous chant, like some religious recital of her Malay ancestors suddenly coming back to her through the ages.

"Ah, he was beautiful, señor; he was beautiful, he was beautiful, he was beautiful! He was tall and straight like the coco tree; his hair curled like the waves upon the sand, and his eyes were deep and soft like the pools of the Cabancalan. He came to me from over the seas, señor; from far-away Spain. I was standing on the beach, right over there. There were many boat-loads of soldiers landing, and he was on the foremost prao. It came straight to me, foaming with eagerness, its wings spread out like those of a butterfly, flying over the waves, and he stood at the bow. His cap was in his hand; the wind blew his hair of gold into a halo like that of the Christ of the Santa Iglesia; the sun beat down upon his white suit and he glistened like a god. Straight for the spot where I stood, señor; straight as your compass needle points to the north, the prao steered from afar, and not a palm's breadth either way did it turn as it foamed toward me. And when, heeling over like a wounded bird, it grounded in the shallows, and ten men jumped out into the water to carry him ashore, he motioned them off, sprang himself into the waves waist-deep, and impatiently, as a horse paws, he forced his way toward me. Then a fear entered my heart and I fled, fled back into the woods, to my hut, and threw myself upon the floor panting, panting and dreaming.

"I was not ugly, then, señor; ah, no, I was not ugly; age and sorrow had not yet knotted me like the roots of the banyan. I was Queen then, señor; the Queen of Beauty among my own people. At the procession it was I that stood on a pedestal, clad in gold and silk, the picture of the Mother of God. At the bailes it was I that the young men sought, and it was for me, señor, that Juan Perez had a knife plunged between his shoulders, one dark night, long ago. It was long ago, señor; it was long ago.

"I was beautiful, señor, and I knew my beauty. I was proud, proud of my dark eyes, of my golden shoulders, of the hair that fell about me like a garment to the ground when I unrolled it in the sun, after the bath at the spring. I was loved, señor; I was desired; my fame was all over Negros and had no boundaries but the sea; but I, I loved no one; I railed and scoffed at all; I loved no one, till he came.

"Then, señor, railing and scoffing died upon my lips; all things hard and mean died within me, and I felt my heart open, bloom, till it seemed my breast would not hold it. Ah, those were happy days, señor; days of beauty. Then the sky was blue, the sun was golden, the breeze was soft—it was long ago, señor; it was long ago. He was my sun, and the warmth and the beauty of him entered my heart till it burst into bloom like the purple moon-flower. We were of different race, but he taught me. He taught me, ah, many things, but what are they, señor, what is anything, compared to love? And he taught me to love. In the evenings, after sundown, we roamed the groves together, in the pale moonshine, and the sea shimmered and the trees whispered, and in my ear was the music of his voice, on my hand the caress of his hand—ah, señor, señor, why do these things stay with us; why, when they pass, do they not leave us, and not stay and stay and stay and torment and torture, hooked to our hearts with double barbs—señor, you who know so many things, can you tell me that?

"Listen, señor! Over there, where the river goes into the sea and the bamboos grow almost into the sky, he built a little nipa house. And it was ours, ours, all our own; and it was there that we lived. Lived, you understand; it is true that some of his time was passed elsewhere; he had the cuartel and his soldiers, but it was here that he lived, for it was here that he loved. Señor, in that little house by the side of the sea, it was there that happiness dwelled, happiness such as there never had been, such as there never will be. Señor, I was beautiful then—now I am old and dried; I chew betel; I drink tuba; I spit. But this is not all the work of years. I might have grown old as the corn grows old—golden-ripe, but now, you see, I do not care. He taught me, then he left me, and my heart fell back like a rock, aye, and lower than he had found it.

"For, of course, he left me, señor. I have learned since it is the way—you whites, you always leave. He went back to his Spain. He was to return in a year. The year passed and he did not come back. Then another and another. It was many years before he returned. The little hut in the bamboos by the river sagged, drooped, rotted; till there was left nothing but the four big corner-posts of narra standing upright, with between them a little mound upon which the grass grew high, a little mound like a grave, the grave of our love. I grew old with the waiting, the longing; my heart was all alone, all alone; and when he landed again, in the green dawn, one day, he did not know the woman squatting on the beach, so near that one of his soldiers pushed her away with his foot to let him pass. He came not alone, señor. With him was a white woman, his wife, with eagle nose and proud bearing and skin like the flesh of the coconut. He did not allow his soldiers to carry her, but went in himself, all booted, to the hips in the surf. His arm went around her waist; but, señor, she only looked that her dress would not touch the water. And I knew within me that when he had forsaken me for her, love had lost.

"I did not die, señor, although I thought I would as I sat there long after he had gone, sat there through the biting of the midday sun till the poisoned breath of the night blew into my face. I went back to my hut and lived. I lived as others; I married, I bore children. These children have borne children; their children have borne children. I lived, but I did not love.

"And he, he also lived, and his wife had children. He lived, but he did not love, señor.

"And thus year passed after year. I saw him little. Once, at sundown, as I was crossing the plaza the portals of his stone mansion clanged open and his carriage rolled out. I saw them pass, he and his wife, she straight and proud, he leaning forward a little, as if tired, and as long as the carriage was in sight I saw them, side by side, but both looking straight ahead—far, far ahead, as if seeking something—and not once at each other. And he, he saw me not at all.

"One night, señor, the baguio swept the land, as it will to-day soon. There were shrieks all night, and the sea-roar and the tree-roar filled the darkness.

"And, in the morning, señor, as the sun rose upon the ruins of the night, there was noise and crying and a moving to and fro among the people of the pueblo. Squads of soldiers tramped about, taos beat the bush, and bloodhounds sniffed the ground. People whispered that the Commandant had left his house in the evening and had not yet returned.

"They found him, señor, in the bamboos by the river, midst the rotting remains of an old hut. One of the big corner posts had fallen upon him, and he lay there dead, stretched across the grass-grown mound that looked like a grave.

"But I had found him first, señor. And in his hand there was a locket, and in the locket there was a wisp of hair. And the hair was not of his wife."

 

Marietta stopped. Her mouth twisted in a convulsive grimace and two glistening things ran down the lines of her cheek.

And outside, with a long-drawn wail, the baguio at length swooped down upon us. The hut shuddered like a live thing, the trees clashed, the sea pounded and hissed. But in the dark, silent, immovable, squatting in infinite lassitude of posture, Marietta wept, wept over the past, the past with its irrevocable ruins, the past, gone beyond recalling, beyond amendment, but still with her, ever with her, with its double-barbed torture.