Hotel Damasco by Xavier Alcalá, Chapter II

by Xavier Alcalá

Years went by, possibly some twenty, and the spinners of Soacinsa rarely crossed Don Emeterio’s mind. Vicente da Rula fell prey to a cancer that morphine could do little to mask; and the chemist heard no more about that child in the mountains except — from what his servant had told him — that he was growing up happily, with his loving mother and the kindly verger of San Fiz whom the woman had ended up marrying.

Electioneering time came round and, one day, the chemist’s esteemed partisans came to the town to give speeches. Don Emeterio felt that proceedings ought to be conducted in a conservative and orderly fashion around conservative and orderly people. So he ordered some of his men to paint a bright white circle on the ground around the town bandstand, where the speeches were to be made. An impressive sight, statuesque, with already greying hair and an icy stare, he arrived carrying a cane. Before the speeches started, he warned that the space within the white circle was exclusively for those with a title or a degree; the rest of the town, whoever they were, had to stay outside the line. Anyone who failed to understand this would have his cane to answer to.

While he was at this business of separating the wheat from the chaff, his gaze fell upon a well-built young lad with gentle features. They reminded him of something, maybe of another face, perhaps the face of someone who wasn’t a strapping young man at all but rather a slender young woman.

The speeches came to an end, so did lunch; and, as evening approached, he was settled comfortably in the pharmacy with a circle of his friends when his assistant came to tell him that he had a visitor.

“The young man tells me his name is Manuel Varela; and that you already know who he is.”

“Send him in”, answered Don Emeterio, turning up a seven-spotted domino.

The visitor appeared: grey cloth jacket, ochre corduroy trousers, white shirt with no tie, black beret in hand and wooden clogs on his feet. Bidding all good afternoon, he explained his presence without hesitation:

“My mother tells me that you are my father, Don Emeterio; and we make no call upon you because we are able to live well with what we have. But we would ask for one favour. It’s that you save me from being sent to Africa on military service, since hardly anyone who goes ever seems to come back.”

Everyone looked at the chemist, expecting one of his usual witty retorts.

Don Emeterio Suárez de Valcarría told the lad to take a seat and went to fetch a copybook.

He asked him for his full name (“Manuel Varela García, son of Manuela Varela García, with the same surnames”). Then he asked for his age, place of birth and ancestry.

The gentleman searched through the pages with his forefinger and finally concluded, “I don’t believe that you’re a son of mine, but of Don Pedro Pardiñas, the Postmaster. So just go along and ask him instead; he has the means to help; and, if for any reason he says he can’t, then you can count on me.”

The lad listened in silence and then left, thanking Don Emeterio and again bidding those present a good afternoon.

They went back to their game and the day came to an end, as did the next. It was time enough for the boy’s features to play repeatedly on the mind of the observant chemist.

He must be his son — Emeterio guessed — not only because he shared a certain air with his eldest legal son, but also because of that old saying; “Your hands and feet will always be the witness of your ancestry”. Manuel Varela had exactly the same bony hands as Don Segundo Suárez de Valcarría y Rodriguez do Toldao, the Carlist Colonel father of don Emeterio. Genetic caprice had made those hands skip a generation, passing from his military father to this possible peasant son…

On the third day Manuel was back, beret in hand, to announce that the Postmaster, Don Emeterio’s companion on many a mountain village spree, had denied all possibility of paternity and refused to help.

Hearing this, the master of the chemist shop — and of a good number of other things too — spoke to the boy with affection. “Look here, son, let’s not do any more digging, as it would only bring your mother into disrepute. If she says I’m your father, then you and I are going to believe it… And about that other matter, just leave it to me; but I have a feeling that you’ll have to exchange the moors of Africa — the worst villains there are — for the indians of America. But at least some of them accept Christianity.”

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