Hotel Damasco by Xavier Alcalá, Chapter I

by Xavier Alcalá

Don Emeterio Suárez de Valcarría y Candia was a great huntsman, and an even better womaniser. It was well known throughout the region that, as soon as the season opened, he’d be up in the mountains, day after day, goaded on by the smell of gunpowder with not a thought in his head but feathers and hides and trophies. There were times when he’d be marooned by heavy snowfall and not return home for weeks — not that his family worried much about that, for there were arrangements in place for these absences of the master of the house: his wife took charge of the household and their nine sons, and they had an assistant to look after the chemist shop where the locals would still gather in the back to play cards and dominoes, buoyed by comments and conjecture about the chemist’s carryings-on.

For Don Emeterio belonged to the landed gentry of Galicia, the oldest kingdom of Spain. Squire to large tracts of land and many a peasant, he had studied in Santiago de Compostela and kept his business open not for the usual reason of need bred from necessity, but rather for the rewards of enjoyment and power, both of which are to be gained from running an apothecary renowned for its cures and remedies…

Further to the nine sons born to him by Doña Celsa Seoane, this sire had a number of others and, depending on the standing of the mother and certain other circumstances (mainly to do with verifying the paternity of the child in question), he dealt with each accordingly. It is known for example, that Maria Carmela dos Muíños, the prettiest of seamstresses, bore him a son, Mariano. Don Emeterio “had him learned” as they say in those parts and now he is a lawyer round about Ferrol and Betanzos, along with a few of his other half-brothers.

However, not all of these misbegotten children were destined to follow the path of reading, writing and arithmetic. Manuel Varela García, for example, found himself without an education.

Manuel’s story began in the spinning shed of a big house perched high on a mountain in a place known as Soacinsa which, in the language of the ancients, meant “beneath the ashes”, perhaps because there was a volcano there, or a forge, in the days of yore.

One hunting season, the snow trapped a shooting party led by Don Emeterio at Soacinsa. They had to be taken in and given shelter; more than one couple slept in the stables so they could offer their beds to such distinguished town gentry.

On one of those lost days of wind and driving snow, the youths and the hunters found themselves together at spinning time. After much joshing, singing and playful ribbing, the dame of the household said:

“Don Emeterio desires that maiden, the one who is holding the rosquilla.”

And she was right; the chemist had made his choice known in the traditional way, with the gift of a pastry, made of flour and sugar. The girl understood and did what was required of her…

The snows melted and spring arrived to cover the mountainside in yellow flowers.
Then summer came and Don Emeterio went away with his family to take the waters. By autumn he was burning for the thunder of shotguns and the baying of hounds. On a cold deer-hunting morning, as he paused to take a glug from his wineskin, one of his servants came to him on horseback and murmured:

 “Don Emeterio, it seems that you’ve sired a baby boy up in Soacinsa.”

Don Emeterio looked that man, Vicente da Rula, straight in the eye and replied: “Get on your horse, go and see the baby and come and tell me if it looks like me.”

Vicente must have done just that (the chemist could not assume otherwise) and he returned with a report that left no room for doubt: “The spitting image, Don Emeterio. All he’s missing is your moustache.”

The gentleman twisted the ends of his Kaiser-style whiskers which — thanks to the ministering of hair-tongs — pointed directly up in the air, and did what he considered appropriate:

“Listen, Vicente: go down to the market, buy a good pair of goats and send them to that girl. I don’t want the child to be short of milk…”

He’d seen for himself that the little virgin was rather flat-chested.

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