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THE NOVEL ON THE TRAM ***




Produced by Michael Wooff




The Novel on the Tram


Benito Pérez Galdós (1843-1920)


This translation of La novela en el tranvía,
which I have entitled The Novel on the Tram,
is granted to the public domain by its translator,
Michael Wooff.


I

The tram left the end of the Salamanca district to pass through the
whole of Madrid in the direction of Pozas. Motivated by a selfish
desire to sit down before others with the same intention, I put my
hand on the handrail of the stair leading to the upper deck, stepped
onto the platform and went up. At the same time (a fateful meeting!)
I collided with another passenger who was getting on the tram from
the other side. I looked at him and recognized my friend Don Dionisio
Cascajares y de la Vallina, a man as inoffensive as he was discreet,
who had at this critical juncture the goodness to greet me with a warm
and enthusiastic handshake. The shock of our unexpected meeting did
not have serious consequences apart from the partial denting of a
certain straw hat placed on top of the head of an English woman who
was trying to get on behind my friend, and who suffered, no doubt for
lack of agility, a glancing blow from his stick. We sat down without
attaching exaggerated importance to this slight mishap and started to
chat.

Don Dionisio Cascajares is a famous doctor, although not for the depth
of his knowledge of pathology, and a good man, since it could never
be said of him that he was inclined to take what did not belong to
him, nor to kill his fellow men by means other than those of his
dangerous and scientific vocation. We can be quite sure that the
leniency of his treatment and his complacency in not giving his
patients any other treatment than the one they want are the root
cause of the confidence he inspires in a great many families,
irrespective of class, especially when, in his limitless kindness,
he also has a reputation for meting out services over and above the
call of duty though always of a rigorously honest nature. Nobody
knows like he does interesting events which are not common knowledge,
and no-one possesses to a higher degree the mania of asking questions,
though this vice of being overly inquisitive is compensated for in
him by the promptness with which he tells you everything he knows
without others needing to take the trouble to sound him out. Judge
then if such a fine exemplar of human flippancy would be in demand
with the curious and the garrulous. This man, my friend as he is
everyone's, was sitting next to me when the tram, slipping smoothly
along its iron road, was going down the calle de Serrano, stopping
from time to time in order to fill the few seats that still remained
empty. We were so hemmed in that the bundle of books I was carrying
with me became a source of great concern to me, and I was putting it
first on one knee, then on the other. Finally I decided to sit on it,
fearing to disturb the English lady, whose seat just happened to be
next to me on my left.

"And where are you going?" Cascajares asked me, looking at me over
the top of his dark glasses, which made me feel that I was being
watched by four eyes rather than two. I answered him evasively and
he, not wanting to lose any time before finding something out,
insisted on asking questions: "And what's so-and-so up to? And
that woman, what's-her-name, where is she?" accompanied by other
inquiries of the same ilk which were not fully replied to either.
As a last resort, seeing how useless his attempts were to start a
conversation, he set off on a path more in keeping with his expansive
temperament and began to spill the beans:

"Poor countess!" he said, expressing with a movement of his head and
facial features his disinterested compassion. "If she had followed
my advice, she would not be in such a critical situation."

"Quite clearly," I replied mechanically, doing compassionate homage
also to the aforementioned countess. "Just imagine," he continued,
"that they've let themselves be dominated by that man! And that
man will end up being master of the house. Poor woman! She thinks
that with tears and lamentations all can be remedied, but it isn't
so. She must make a decision, for that man is a monster; I believe
he has it in him to commit the most heinous crimes."

"Yes, he'll stop at nothing," I said, unconsciously participating in
his indignation.

"He's like all those low-born men who follow their base instincts.
If they raise their station in life, they become insufferable. His
face is a clear indication that nothing good can come out of all this."

"It hits you in the face. I believe you."

"I'll explain it to you in a nutshell. The countess is an excellent
woman, angelic, as discreet as she is beautiful and deserving of
something far better. But she is married to a man who does not
understand the value of the treasure he possesses and he spends his
life given over to gambling and to all sorts of illicit pastimes.
She in the meantime gets bored and cries. Is it surprising that she
tries to dull her pain honestly, here and there, wherever a piano is
being played? Moreover I myself give her this advice and say it loud
and clear: Madam, seek diversion. Life's too short. The count in
the end will have to repent of his follies and your sufferings will
then be over. It seems to me I'm right."

"No doubt about it," I replied off the cuff, although, in my heart
of hearts, as indifferent as I had been to begin with to the sundry
misfortunes of the countess. "But that's not the worst of it,"
Cascajares added, striking the floor with his stick, "for now the
count, in the prime of life, has started to be jealous, yes, of a
certain young man who has taken to heart the enterprise of helping
the countess to enjoy herself."

"The husband will be to blame if he succeeds."

"None of that would matter as the countess is virtue incarnate; none
of that would matter, I say, if there was not a terrible man whom I
suspect of being about to cause a disaster in that house."

"Really? And who is he, this man?" I asked with a spark of curiosity.

"A former butler, well-liked by the count, who has set himself to make
a martyr of the countess as unhappy as she is sensitive. It seems
that he is now in possession of a certain secret which could compromise
her, and with this weapon he presumes to do God knows what. It's
infamous!"

"It certainly is and he merits an exemplary punishment," I said,
discharging in turn the weight of my wrath on that man.

"But she is innocent, she is an angel. But enough said! We've
reached Cibeles. Yes, on the right I can see Buenavista Park. Have
them stop, boy. I'm not one of those who jump off while the tram is
still moving to split open their heads on the cobbles. Farewell, my
friend, farewell."

The tram stopped and Don Dionisio Cascajares y de la Vallina got off
after shaking my hand again and inflicting more slight damage on the
hat of the English lady who had not yet recovered from her original
scare.

II

The tram carried on and, strange to relate, I in turn continued to
think about the unknown countess, of her cruel and suspicious consort
and above all of the sinister man who, according to the doctor's
emphatic expression, was on the point of causing a disaster in the
house. Consider, reader, the nature of human thought: when Cascajares
started to relate those events to me, I was annoyed at his importunity
and heaviness, but my mind wasted little time in taking hold of that
same subject, turning it upside down and right side up, a psychological
process which did not cease to be stimulated by the regular motion of
the tram and the dull and monotonous noise of its wheels polishing the
iron of the rails.

But in the end I stopped thinking about what was of such little interest
to me and, scanning with my eyes the inside of the tram, I examined
one by one my travelling companions. What distinctive faces and what
expressions! Some appeared not to be bothered in the least about those
who were next to them. Some were happy, some were sad, this one was
yawning, that one was laughing, and in spite of the journey's shortness,
there was not a single one who did not want it to be over quickly, for
among the thousand and one annoyances of our existence, none exceeds
the one that consists in being a dozen people gazing at one another's
faces without saying a word and mutually musing over their wrinkles,
their moles or some anomaly noticed in a face or in clothing.

It is strange this short acquaintance with people that we have not
seen before and will in all likelihood not see again. We already meet
someone on entering and others arrive while we're still there.
Passengers get off leaving us alone and finally we too alight. It's
a mirror of human life itself in which birth and death are like the
entrances and exits I've just mentioned for new generations of
passengers come to populate the little world that lives inside the tram.
They get on, they get off; they are born and they die. How many have
passed through here before we have! How many more will succeed us!
And for the resemblance to be even more complete there is also a small
world of passions in miniature inside that big box.

Many go there that we feel instinctively to be excellent people and
their appearance pleases us and we are even upset to see them go.
Others, on the contrary, annoy us as soon as we look at them. We
examine with a certain rancour their phrenological characteristics
and feel a real pleasure when we see them go. And meanwhile the
vehicle, an imitation of life, keeps going, always receiving and
letting go, uniform, indefatigable, majestic, oblivious to what is
happening inside it, without being moved very much by the barely
stifled passions of dumb show. The tram is running, always running
over the two interminable iron tracks, wide and slippery as centuries.
I was thinking about this while the tram was going up the calle de
Alcalá until the noise of my bundle of books falling on the floor
pulled me back from the gulf of so many mixed up ruminations. I
picked it up immediately and my eyes focused on the sheet of newspaper
that was serving as a wrapper to the volumes and mechanically took in
half a line of what was printed there. All of a sudden my curiosity
was well and truly aroused. I had read something that interested me
and certain names scattered through that scrap of a newspaper serial
affected both my vision and my memory. I looked for the beginning
and did not find it: the paper was torn and I could only read, with
curiosity at first and afterwards more and more eagerly, what follows:

The countess felt indescribably agitated. The presence of Mudarra,
the insolent butler, who had forgotten his humble beginnings to dare
to cast his gaze on such a noble personage, was a continual source of
anxiety to her. The scoundrel never stopped spying on her, watching
her as a prison guard watches a prisoner. He already showed no
deference to her and nor were the sensitivity and delicacy of such
an excellent lady an obstacle to his entrapment of her. Mudarra made
an untimely entrance into the private quarters of the countess, who,
pale and agitated, feeling at one and the same time both shame and
terror, did not have the strength to dismiss him.

"Don't be frightened, Your Ladyship," he said with a forced and
sinister smile, which made the lady even more alarmed. "I haven't
come to do you any harm."

"Oh my God! When will this agony be over?" the lady exclaimed,
dropping her arms in discouragement. "Leave. I cannot accede to
your desires. What infamy! To make use in this way of my weakness
and the indifference of my husband, the source of so many of my
misfortunes!"

"Why so surly, countess?" the fierce butler added. "If I did not
have in my hands the secret that could lead to your perdition, if
I could not apprise the count of certain particulars with reference
to that young nobleman. But I will not use these terrible weapons
against you. One day you will understand me and know how selfless
is the great love that you have been able to inspire in me."

As he said this Mudarra moved a few steps nearer to the countess
who distanced herself with horror and repugnance from that monster.
Mudarra was a man of around fifty, dark-skinned, thickset and
knock-kneed, with rough, untidy hair and a big mouth full of teeth.
His eyes, half hidden behind the luxuriant growth of wide, black
and very thick eyebrows, expressed at moments like these the most
bestial concupiscence.

"Ah porcupine!" he angrily exclaimed on seeing the lady's natural
reticence. "How unfortunate I am not to be a dapper young chap!
Such prudery knowing full well I can tell the count and have no
doubt that he'll believe me, Your Ladyship: the count has so much
trust in me that he takes what I say as gospel and he'll be full
of jealousy if I show him the paper."

"Scoundrel!" shouted the countess with a noble display of righteous
indignation. "I am innocent and my husband will not give credence
to such vile slanders. And even if I were guilty I would prefer a
thousand times over for my husband and the whole world to despise
me than to buy peace of mind at that price. Leave here at once."

"I too have a temper, countess," said the butler swallowing his
rage. "I too can lose it and get angry and since Your Ladyship
is making a big thing of this, let's make a big thing of it. I
already know what I have to do and I've been until now far too
affable. One last time I put it to Your Ladyship that we should
be friends and don't make me do something you'll regret, and so
my lady."

On saying this Mudarra contracted the parchment-like skin and the
rigid tendons of his face making a grimace like a smile and took
a few more steps as if to sit down on the sofa next to the countess.
The latter jumped up shouting: "No! Leave! Scoundrel! And not
to have anyone here to defend me. Leave!"

The butler then was like a wild animal that lets go of the prey it
was holding a moment before in its claws. He breathed heavily,
made a threatening gesture and slowly left with soft footfalls.
The countess, trembling and out of breath, having taken refuge in
a corner of the room, heard the footfalls which faded away on the
carpet of the room next door and finally breathed when she judged
him to be far away. She closed the doors and tried to sleep, but
sleep eluded her, her eyes still full of terror at the image of
the monster.

CHAPTER XI The Plot

Mudarra, on leaving the countess's room, went in the direction of
his own and, dominated by a strong feeling of nervous anxiety,
started to search for letters and papers muttering to himself:
"I can't stand it anymore. You'll pay me back for all of this."
Then he sat down, took up his pen, and, putting in front of him
one of those letters and examining it closely, he began to write
another, trying to copy the writing. He moved his eyes feverishly
from the model to the copy and finally, after a great deal of work,
he wrote with writing totally identical to that of the model, the
following letter, the sentiments in which were of his own making:
I promised to meet with you and I'm hastening to carry out that
promise.

The newspaper in which this serial appeared was torn and I could
read no further.

III

Without taking my eyes off the bundle of books I started to think
about the relationship between the news I had had from the mouth
of Don Cascajares and the scene I had just read in that scandal
sheet, a roman feuilleton no doubt translated from some silly novel
by Ponson du Terrail or Montépin. It may be silly I said to myself,
but the fact is I'm interested in this countess who has fallen
victim to the nastiness of an insufferable butler who only exists
in the disturbed mind of some novelist born to terrify simple souls.
And what will he do to take his revenge? He'd be capable of framing
some atrocity to bring to an end in sensational style such a chapter.
And what will the count do? And that young man Cascajares mentioned
on the tram and Mudarra in the serial, what will he do? Who is he?
What is there between the countess and that unknown gentleman? I'd
give my eye teeth to know.

These were my thoughts when I raised my eyes and looked over the
inside of the tram with them. To my horror I saw a person who made
me shake with fear. While I was engrossed in the interesting reading
of the feuilleton, the tram had stopped several times to take on or
let off passengers. On one of these occasions this man had got on
whose sudden presence now produced such a strong impression on me.
It was him, Mudarra, the butler in person, sitting opposite me, with
his knees touching my knees. I took a second to examine him from
head to toe and saw in him the features I had already read about.
He could be no-one else: even the most trifling details of his
clothing clearly indicated it was him. I recognized his dark and
lustrous complexion, his unruly hair, the curls of which sprang up
in opposite directions like the snakes of Medusa. His deep-sunk
eyes were covered by the thickness of his bushy eyebrows and his
beard was no less unkempt than his hair, while his feet were twisted
inwards like those of parrots. The same look in a nutshell, the
same man in his appearance, in his clothes, in the way he breathed
and in the way he coughed, even in the way he put his hand into his
pocket to pay his fare.

Suddenly I saw him take out a letter writing case and I noticed that
this object had on its cover a great gilded M, the first letter of
his surname. He opened it, took out a letter and looked at the
envelope with a demonic smile and I even thought I heard him mutter:
"How well I've imitated the handwriting!" The letter was indeed a
small one with the envelope addressed in a feminine scrawl. I
watched him closely as he took pleasure in his infamous action until
he saw that I had indiscreetly and discourteously stretched my face
in order to read the address. He gave me a stare that hit me like
a blow and put the letter back in the case.

The tram kept going and in the short time it had taken me to read
an extract from the novel, to reflect on such strange occurrences
and to see Mudarra in the flesh, a character out of a book, hard to
believe in, made human and now my companion on this journey, we had
left behind the calle de Alcalá, were currently crossing the Puerta
del Sol and making a triumphal entrance into the calle Mayor, making
a way for ourselves between other vehicles, making slow-moving covered
waggons speed up and frightening pedestrians who, in the tumult of
the street and dazed by so many diverse noises, only saw the solid
outline of the tram when it was almost on top of them. I continued
to look at that man as one looks at an object of whose existence one
is uncertain and I did not take my eyes from his repugnant face till
I saw him get up, ask for the tram to stop and get off, losing sight
of him then among the crowd on the street.

Various passengers got off and got on and the living décor of the
tram changed completely. The more I thought of it, the more alive
was the curiosity that event aroused in me, which I had to begin with
considered as forced into my head exclusively by the juxtaposition of
various feelings occasioned by my erstwhile conversation and subsequent
reading, but which I finally imagined as indubitably true.

When the man in whom I thought to see the awful butler got off the
tram, I was still thinking about the incident with the letter and I
explained it to myself as best I could, hoping not to have on such a
delicate matter an imagination less fertile than the novelist who
had written what only moments before I had read. Mudarra, I thought,
desirous of taking his revenge on the countess, that unfortunate
lady, had copied her writing and written a letter to a certain
gentleman of her acquaintance. In the letter she had given him a
rendezvous in her own home. The young man had arrived at the time
indicated and shortly afterwards the husband, whom the butler had
warned so that he would catch his unfaithful wife in flagrante
which was in itself an admirable idea! An action, which in life has
points for and against, fits snugly in a novel like a ring on a
finger. The lady would faint, the lover would panic and the husband
would commit an atrocity and, lurking behind a curtain, the face of
the butler would light up diabolically.

As an avid reader of numerous bad novels, I gave that twist to what
was unconsciously developing in my imagination on the basis of the
words of a friend, the reading of a piece of torn-off paper and the
sight of someone I had never laid eyes on before.

IV

The tram kept on going and going and whether because of the heat that
could be felt inside it or the slow and monotonous movement of the
vehicle that gives rise to a certain amount of dizziness which then
turns into sleep, what is certain is that I felt my eyelids droop,
leaned to my left-hand side, placing my elbow on the bundle of books,
and closed my eyes. While in this position I continued to see the
row of faces of both sexes in front of me, some bearded, some shaven,
some laughing, some very stiff and serious. Afterwards it seemed
to me that, obeying the contraction of a single muscle, all those
faces winked and grimaced, opening and closing their eyes and their
mouths, and showing me in turn a series of teeth that varied from
whiter than white to yellowish, some as sharp as knives, others
broken and worn. Those eight noses set under sixteen eyes varying
in colour and expression, got bigger or smaller and changed shape;
the mouths opened in a horizontal line producing silent laughter
or stretched forward forming sharp-pointed snouts similar to the
interesting face of a certain distinguished animal which has brought
down on itself the anathema of being unnameable.

Behind those eight faces, whose horrendous traits I have just depicted,
and through the windows of the tram, I could see the street, the houses
and the passers-by, all speeding past as if the tram were travelling
at a vertiginous speed. I at least thought that it went faster than
the trains on our railroads, faster than its French, English and North
American counterparts. It ran as fast as might be imagined when it
came to displacing solid objects.

As this state of lethargy increased, I was able to imagine that houses,
streets and the whole of Madrid were gradually disappearing. For a
moment I thought that the tram was running through oceanic depths:
through the windows could be seen the bodies of enormous cetaceans
and the sticky appendages of a multitude of polyps of various sizes.
Small fish were shaking their slippery tails against the glass and
some of them were looking inside with great and gilded eyes.
Crustaceans of an unfamiliar shape, large molluscs, madrepores, sponges
and a scattering of big and misshapen bivalves which I had never seen
before, swam ceaselessly past. The tram was being pulled by monstrous
swimming creatures, whose oars, fighting with the water, sounded like
the blades of a propeller churning it up with their ceaseless rotation.

This vision started to fade. Then it seemed to me that the tram was
flying through the air, always in the same direction and without being
blown off course by winds. Through the windows only empty space was
visible. Clouds sometimes enveloped us and a sudden downpour drummed
against the upper deck. All at once we came out into pure space flooded
with sunshine, only to go back to the nebulous presence of huge flashes,
now red, now yellow, sometimes opal, sometimes amethyst, which were
being left behind us as we made our way forward. We passed then through
a point in space where shining forms floated in a very fine golden dust:
further on this dust storm, which I took to be produced by the movement
of the wheels grinding the light, was silver, then green like flour made
from emeralds, and finally red like flour made from rubies. The tram
was being dragged by some apocalyptic bird, stronger than a hippogryph
and more daring than a dragon, and the noise of the wheels and the
driving force made me think of the whirring of the great sails of a
windmill, or rather the buzz of a bumblebee the size of an elephant.
We were flying through infinite space without ever arriving anywhere.
In the meantime the earth fell away several leagues below our feet,
and the things of earth - Spain, Madrid, the Salamanca district,


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Online LibraryBenito Pérez GaldósThe Novel on the Tram → online text (page 1 of 2)