Pablo was a man of small fortune but possessed an excellent figure, lively conversation, and great ambitions. Thanks to these latter three qualities, he managed to marry well, to a woman whose teeth were as prominent as her social position. But the marriage proved intolerable, his jealous wife spying upon his every movie. In a panic, Pablo left Madrid one night and fled to Toledo, a city of impregnable tradition still locked in the Middle Ages. Within this fortress on a hill lived Pablo’s estranged brother Miguel. The brothers had not spoken for a decade, but given the circumstances, Pablo was certain that Miguel would offer him asylum, at least until he could secure a post somewhere in the American colonies.
Upon arriving in his brother’s house in Toledo, Pablo was greeted by Miguel’s wife Julia. She called him Miguel. From the servants Pablo learned that Miguel had died quite suddenly two months ago, leaving his adoring young wife Julia crazed with grief. In her insanity, poor Julia believed Pablo to be Miguel, returned not from death, but rather a long journey.
At first Pablo found Julia’s delusion both awkward and grotesque. But having nowhere else to go, he remained. He soon discovered that, for a modern man like himself, free of old-fashioned scruples, there are certain advantages to living with a beautiful albeit demented woman who believes one to be her husband. Especially when that women also commands a modest fortune. Best of all, Julia only required his attentions at night; during the day, she was completely indifferent to him, occupying herself instead with maintaining the household and attending mass, leaving him free to do as he pleased.
Pablo was a sociable man, and eventually his fear of being discovered by his wife was eclipsed by his need to enter into society, or what passed for society in Toledo. One hot evening, after having imbibed one too many glasses or bottles, he made some remarks about Julia that suggested that he knew her more intimately than it is customary for brother in laws to know their sisters’ in-law. The bar fell silent. A man at the table next to him stood up, paid his bill, and asked Pablo to choose the time, place and weapon. I am Julia’s brother, he said; Pablo had insulted his sister’s honor, and he demanded satisfaction. When it dawned on Pablo that Marcos had challenged him to a duel, he initially declined; there hadn’t been any duels in Spain for ages, he said. But under the silent stare of the men at the bar, all of them sneering at him in their heads, he found he was more terrified of being thought a coward than of facing a pistol. To cover his lapse of courage, he feigned effrontery, loudly insisting that he was the offended one, that Marcos had slandered his sister-in-law, and he demanded satisfaction. Both men would now fight for their sister’s honor.
An hour was agreed upon; Neutral and level ground was named, and the finest pair of duelling pistols in Toledo were borrowed, cleaned, and loaded. As dawn broke, Pablo found himself, still drunk, standing on the riverbank, a two-hundred-year-old pistol in his hand.
From her window, Julia watched Pablo and Marcos count their paces. She smiled, gave thanks to God for his mercy, for deciding himself which man he would take, and which one he would leave for her. It had been so difficult to choose between them! The handsome brother of her husband, her lover by night; and Marcos, her adopted brother and, for some time now, the secret lover with whom she shared the long siestas of the afternoon.
When she saw the men turn and take aim, she too turned her back to the window. When the shots rang out and one man fell and the other felt relieved to be alive, Julia collapsed onto her bed, overcome by her own tremendous relief: the matter had been resolved honorably. Now there was no need to let her fate be decided by that word that everyone is obsessed with but can never explain or define, that most enigmatic of concepts, love.
Excerpt (accompanied by “Compás de tangos (lentos)”)
People who come from the capital often find the men in our town gruff and taciturn, they complain of our dismal conversation, equating slow speech with slow minds. But we are thinking all the time, always measuring carefully each word and its myriad interpretive possibilities before uttering it, and tending, when we drink, to be more melancholic than loquacious.
In our town, words have weight. If we say we will pay a man, we will pay him. We are not divine, we cannot, as our Lord can, see into the soul of a man; we must judge by appearances, we must judge a man by his words and his deeds, and is to every man and woman’s benefit, and to the benefit of society, that those two things be the same thing, and not contradict one another. Men are a fallen and degraded race. What, then, is to keep us from deceiving one another? What is to keep us from uttering malicious calumnies, insulting and saying disgraceful, vulgar, or idiotic things against our sisters and brothers? Only the knowledge that if you insult or slander one of your fellows, a person who is no less one of God’s creatures than you are, if you levy accusations against a man or a woman, then you must must be prepared to back your words with your life. A society of men without honor is a society of lies, and it will be ruled not by the wisest men, or the the just men, or even the strongest men, but rather by the men who are the greatest liars.