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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Tuerto’s Family Life

By José Maria de Pereda (1833–1906)

From ‘La Leva’

BEFORE going any further, the reader should be informed that there existed from time immemorial, between the seagoing folk of High Street [the street along the heights] and those by the water-side, an inextinguishable feud.

Each quarter forms a separate fishing corporation, or guild; and the two have not been willing even to adopt the same patron saint. The High Street folks, or the Upper Guild, chose Saint Peter, while those on Beach Street, or the Lower Guild, commend themselves to the holy martyrs Emeterius and Celadonius; and to those illustrious saintships—said to have miraculously come to port in a bark made of stone—they have built, at their own expense, a very pretty chapel, in the Miranda quarter, overlooking a wide expanse of ocean.

So now we continue.

Tuerto [“Cross-Eyes”] enters his house. He tosses off his sou’-wester or serviceable tarpaulin hat, throws down upon an old chest his duck waterproof, which he had carried on his shoulder, and hangs up on a nail a basket with an oil-skin covering, and full of fishing-tackle. His wife dishes up in an old broken pan a mess of beans and cabbage, badly cooked and worse seasoned, sets it on the chest, and puts alongside it a big piece of coarse brown bread. Tuerto, without letting fall a word, waits till his infants have got around the board also, and then begins to eat the mess with a pewter spoon. His wife and children accompany him, taking turns with another spoon, of wood. The beans and cabbage are finished. Tuerto has the air of expecting something next, which does not come; he looks at the dish, then into the bottom of the empty stew-pan, then finally at his wife. The woman turns pale.

“Where is the meat?” he at length inquires, with the chronic hoarse voice of the fisherman.

“The meat?” stammered his wife. “As the butcher’s shop was closed when I went to get it, I did not bring any.”

“That’s a lie. I gave you the two reals and a half to buy it yesterday noon, and the butcher’s doesn’t close till four. What have you done with the money?”

“The money?—the money?—It’s in my pocket.”

“You thieving jade, if you’ve been drinking again, I swear I’ll let daylight through you,” roared the enraged Tuerto, on observing the continually increasing confusion of his wife. “Let me see that money, and be quick about it, I say.”

The woman pulled forth tremblingly a few small coins from her pocket, and held them out to her husband, without fully opening her hand.

“Its only eight coppers you’ve got there, and I gave you twenty-one. Where’s the rest?”

“I must have lost—have lost them. I had twenty-one this morning.”

“Don’t tell me such a thing as that: the two reals I gave you were in silver.”

“Yes, but I changed them at the market.”

“What has your mother done this morning?” quickly demands Tuerto, clutching his eldest child by the arm.

The child trembles in affright, looks alternately at father and mother, and remains silent.

“Speak out, I say.”

“Mother will go and beat me if I do,” replied the poor little brat, sniveling.

“And if you don’t answer me, I’ll give you a crack that will spoil your face.”

The boy, who knows by hard experience that his father never deals in vain threats, now, despite the signals his mother makes him to keep still, shuts his eyes, and speaking as rapidly as if he feared the words would burn his mouth, says:—

“Mother brought home a pint of brandy this morning, and has the bottle hidden in the straw mattress.”

Tuerto no sooner hears these words than he fells his culprit spouse to the floor with a resounding whack, rushes to the bed, rummages amid the contents of the poor mattress, pulls out from it a small bottle which contains the remainder of the contraband liquor, and returning with it towards his wife, hurls it at her head at the moment when she is just getting up from the floor. It knocks her down anew, and the children are sprinkled with the flying spirits. The wretched woman, sorely hurt, laments and groans; the frightened children weep; and the irate mariner sallies forth to the balcony, cursing his wife and the day that he was ever born.

Uncle Tremontorio, who arrived from the sea at the same time with his mates Bolina [Billy Bowline] and Tuerto, had been in his balcony knitting away at his fishing-nets (his customary occupation when at home) from the beginning of the dispute between his neighbors. From time to time he would take a bite out of a hunk of bread, and another of dried codfish, the provision that constituted his usual dinner. Though he is perfectly well posted about what has just taken place [across the narrow street], it is not his way to mix himself up in what does not concern him. But the furious husband, who needs an outlet for venomous rage that still half chokes him, calls up his neighbor, and the pair shout from one balcony to the other the following dialogue:—

“Uncle Tremontorio, I can’t stand this devil of a woman any longer. One of these days you’ll hear of some desperate deed on my part; I suppose that’s the way it will all end.”

“I have told you that it was your own fault, from the beginning. She tacked your way a little, and you let go your whole cable and thought your voyage was over.”

“What could I do? I thought then she was one of heaven’s own saints.”

“What could you do? Do? why, what I’ve always told you: haul her taut, and make fast with a double turn. Rough wind astern? all right, ahead you go.”

“But there’s not a bone in her body I haven’t already tinkered at with a cudgel, as you might mend the ribs of a boat.”

“You waited till the wood was rotten, my friend.”

“As God is my witness she’s the worst villain unhung. What is going to become of those poor brats of mine when I am taken away from them? for the devil will never take that woman: he has no place to put her. Last week I handed her twenty-four reals to dress the children with. Have you laid eyes on that money? Well, neither have I. The drunkard spent them for drink. I gave her a walloping that left her for dead, and yet what does she do? Three days after that she sells a sheet from our bed for a quart of rum. Yesterday I gave her twenty-one cents for meat, and she drank them also. And with all this the young ones are naked, I haven’t a shirt to my back, and I never dare think of treating myself to an honest glass of wine of a fête-day.”

“Why don’t you get an exorcism said over her? Maybe she’s bewitched by evil spirits, and that’s the cause of it.”

“I’ve spent a small fortune in those very tomfooleries, Tremontorio. I took her to more than three leagues from here, to get a parson that they said had the gift of such things, to chuck the gospels at her. Well, he did; then he gave me a little card he had said a prayer over, and a sprig of rue, sewed it all up in a bag, hung it round her neck, charged me nearly four dollars for it, and that was all the good it did—not the first blessed thing. The very next day she had a jag on worse than ever, and wanted to paint the town red. I’ve given her brandy with gunpower in it,—a thing, they say, that creates a distaste for liquor,—but that beast, did it affect her that way? Not much! she seemed to like the drink after that better than ever. I’ve laid out a treasure in candles alone, setting them up before the Holy Martyrs, to see if they’d rid her of the vice; and it was just the same as if I had not spent a farthing. I swear to you, I don’t know what to do, Uncle Tremontorio, unless it is to kill her: there are no bounds to this vice of hers. Just tell me what you say of this: When I gave her the brandy with powder in it, she was taken with such a colic I thought she’d burst. I had heard that flannels soaked in spirits, applied good and hot, was a cure for that sort of pains in the stomach; so I heated up about half a pint of liquor in a saucepan. When it was blazing hot, I took it over to the bedside, where the thief of the world was writhing about in contortions. I had to leave the saucepan with her a minute while I went to the chest to get out some rags; I turned around, and, man, what do you think I saw? she was just swallowing down the last drops of the spirits from the saucepan, almost ablaze as it was. Man, man, was there ever a worse curse of God?”

“Well, friend—in regard to that—ahem! what can I say to you? When a woman chooses to take the crooked path, like yours, give her the stick, and plenty of it. If with that she doesn’t mend her ways and float off in good style, then either sink her to the bottom, once for all, or string yourself up to a yard-arm.”

“I’ve told you already—what’s the matter with you?—that I’ve covered every inch of her body with the welts of a stick, and I’ve decorated her face all over with bruises till there’s hardly room for another.”

“Then go hang yourself, and leave me in peace to finish these meshes. And you may as well know that the reason I never married is to keep out of the devil’s own scrape that you are in.”