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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Pedro Antonio de Alarcón (1833–1891)

The Account-Book

From “Moors and Christians”

OLD Gaffer Buscabeatas was already beginning to stoop at the time when the events occurred which I am going to relate; for he was now sixty years of age, and of these sixty years he had spent forty cultivating a garden bordering on the shore of La Costilla.

In the year in question he had cultivated in this garden some wonderful pumpkins, as large as the ornamental globes on the breastwork of some massive bridge, that at the time of our story were beginning to turn yellow, inside and out, which is the same as saying that it was the middle of June. Old Buscabeatas knew by heart the particular form and the stage of maturity at which it had arrived of every one of these pumpkins, to each of which he had given a name, and especially of the forty largest and finest specimens, which were already crying out, “Cook me!” and he spent the days contemplating them affectionately, and saying in melancholy accents, “Soon we shall have to part!”

At last, one evening, he made up his mind to the sacrifice, and marking out the best fruits of those beloved vines which had cost him so many anxieties, he pronounced the dreadful sentence. “To-morrow,” he said, “I shall cut from their stalks these forty pumpkins and take them to the market at Cadiz. Happy the man who shall eat of them!”

And he returned to his home with slow step, and spent the night in such anguish as a father may be supposed to feel on the eve of his daughter’s wedding-day.

“What a pity to have to part from my dear pumpkins!” he would sigh from time to time in his restless vigil. But presently he would reason with himself, and end his reflections by saying, “And what else can I do but sell them? That is what I have raised them for. The least they will bring me is fifteen pesos!”

Judge, then, what was his consternation, what his rage and despair, on going into the garden on the following morning, to find that during the night he had been robbed of his forty pumpkins! Not to weary the reader, I will only say that his emotion, like that of Shakespeare’s Jew, so admirably represented, it is said, by the actor Kemble, reached the sublimity of tragedy as he frantically cried:

“Oh, if I could only find the thief! If I could only find the thief!”

Poor old Buscabeatas presently began to reflect upon the matter with calmness, and comprehended that his beloved treasures could not be in Rota, where it would be impossible to expose them for sale without risk of their being recognized, and where, besides, vegetables bring a very low price.

“I know, as well as if I saw them, that they are in Cadiz!” he ended. “The scoundrel! the villain! the thief must have stolen them between nine and ten o’clock last night, and got off with them at midnight on the freight-boat. I shall go to Cadiz this morning on the hour-boat, and it will surprise me greatly if I do not catch the thief there, and recover the children of my toil.”

After he had thus spoken, he remained for some twenty minutes longer on the scene of the catastrophe, whether to caress the mutilated vines, to calculate the number of pumpkins that were missing, or to formulate a declaration of the loss sustained, for a possible suit; then, at about eight o’clock, he bent his steps in the direction of the wharf.

The hour-boat was just going to sail. This was a modest coaster which leaves Cadiz every morning at nine o’clock precisely, carrying passengers, as the freight-boat leaves Cadiz every night at twelve, laden with fruits and vegetables.

The former is called the hour-boat because in that space of time, and occasionally even in forty minutes, if the wind is favorable, it makes the three leagues which separate the ancient village of the Duke of Arcos from the ancient city of Hercules.

It was, then, half past ten in the morning on the before-mentioned day when old Buscabeatas passed before a vegetable-stand in the market of Cadiz, and said to the bored policeman who was accompanying him:

“Those are my squashes! Arrest that man!” and he pointed to the vender.

“Arrest me!” cried the vender, astonished and enraged. “These squashes are mine; I bought them!”

“You will have to prove that before the judge!” answered old Buscabeatas.

“I say no!”

“I say yes!”



“Speak more civilly, you ill-mannered fellows! Decent men ought not to treat one another in that way!” said the policeman tranquilly, giving a blow with his closed fist to each of the disputants.

By this time a crowd had gathered, and there soon arrived also on the scene the inspector of public markets.

The policeman resigned his jurisdiction in the case to his Honor, and when this worthy official had learned all the circumstances relating to the affair, he said to the vender majestically:

“From whom did you purchase those squashes?”

“From Fulano, a native of Rota,” answered the person thus interrogated.

“It could be no one else!” cried old Buscabeatas. “He is just the one to do it! When his own garden, which is a very poor one, produces little, he takes to robbing the gardens of his neighbors!”

“But, admitting the supposition that forty pumpkins were stolen from you last night,” said the inspector, turning to the old gardener and proceeding with his examination, “how do you know that these are precisely your pumpkins?”

“How?” replied old Buscabeatas. “Because I know them as well as you know your daughters, if you have any! Don’t you see that they have grown up under my care? Look here: this one is called Roly-Poly, this one Fat-Cheeks, this one Big-Belly, this one Ruddy-Face, this Manuela, because it reminded me of my youngest daughter.”

And the poor old man began to cry bitterly.

“That may be all very well,” replied the inspector; “but it is not enough for the law that you should recognize your pumpkins. It is necessary also that the authorities be convinced of the preexistence of the article in dispute, and that you identify it with incontrovertible proofs. Gentlemen, there is no occasion for you to smile. I know the law!”

“You shall see, then, that I will very soon prove to the satisfaction of everybody present, without stirring from this spot, that these pumpkins have grown in my garden!” said old Buscabeatas, to the no little surprise of the spectators of this scene. And laying down on the ground a bundle which he had been carrying in his hand, he bent his knees until he sat upon his heels, and quietly began to untie the knotted corners of the handkerchief.

The curiosity of the inspector, the vender, and the chorus was now at its height.

“What is he going to take out of that handkerchief?” they said to themselves.

At this moment a new spectator joined the crowd, curious to see what was going on, whom the vender had no sooner perceived than he exclaimed:

“I am very glad that you have come, Fulano! This man declares that the squashes which you sold me last night, and which are now here present, listening to what we are saying about them, were stolen. Answer, you!”

The newcomer turned as yellow as wax, and made a movement as if to escape, but the bystanders detained him by force, and the inspector himself ordered him to remain. As for old Buscabeatas, he had already confronted the supposed thief, saying to him:

“Now you are going to see something good.”

Fulano, recovering his self-possession, answered:

“It is you who ought to see what you are talking about, for if you do not prove, as prove you cannot, your accusation, I shall have you put in prison for libel. These pumpkins were mine. I cultivated them, like all the others that I brought this year to Cadiz, in my garden, and no one can prove the contrary!”

“Now you shall see!” repeated old Buscabeatas, loosening the knots of the handkerchief and spreading out its contents on the ground.

And there were scattered over the floor a number of fragments of pumpkin stalks, still fresh and dripping sap, while the old gardener, seated on his heels and unable to control his laughter, addressed the following discourse to the inspector and the wondering bystanders:

“Gentlemen, have any of you ever paid taxes? If you have, you must have seen the big green book of the collector, from which he tears off your receipt, leaving the stub or end, so as to be able to prove afterward whether the receipt is genuine or not.”

“The book you mean is called the account-book,” said the inspector gravely.

“Well, that is what I have here, the account-book of my garden—that is to say, the stalks to which these pumpkins were attached before they were stolen from me. And in proof of what I say, look here! This stalk belongs to this pumpkin; no one can doubt it. This other—you can see for yourselves—belonged to this other. This is thicker—it must belong to this one. This to that one. This to that other.”

And as he spoke he went fitting a stub or peduncle to the hole which had been made in each pumpkin as it was pulled from the stalk, and the spectators saw with surprise that the irregular and capricious-shaped ends or the peduncles corresponded exactly with the whitish circles and the slight hollows presented by what we might call the cicatrices of the pumpkins.

Every one present, including the policeman, and even the inspector himself, then got down on their heels and began to help old Buscabeatas in his singular accountant’s work, crying out with childlike delight:

“He is right! He is right! There is not a doubt of it! Look! This belongs to this one. This to that one. That one there belongs to this. This belongs to that!” And the bursts of laughter of the grown people were mingled with the whistling of the boys, the abuse of the women, the tears of joy and triumph of the old gardener, and the shoves that the policeman gave to the convicted thief, as if they were all impatient to see him off to prison.

Needless to say that the policeman had that pleasure. Fulano was immediately compelled to restore to the vender the fifteen pesos he had received from him, the vender handed these over at once to old Buscabeatas, and the latter departed for Rota, highly delighted, although he kept repeating all the way home:

“How handsome they looked in the market! I should have brought Manuela back with me to eat for supper to-night, and save the seeds.”