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Don Fernando – I

Non-Fiction > Don Fernando >


I was living in Seville at the time, in the street called Guzman el Bueno, and whenever I went out or came home I passed Don Fernando's tavern. When, my morning's work done, I had gone for a stroll down the gay and crowded Sierpes, I found it very pleasant to drop in for a glass of manzanilla on my way back to luncheon; and in the cool of the evening, walking my horse over the dangerous cobbles after a ride in the country, I would often stop, call the boy to hold the horse, and step in. The tavern was no more than a long low room with doors on two sides of it, for it was at the corner of a street; the bar ran down the length of the room and behind it were the barrels of wine from which Don Fernando served you. From the ceiling hung bunches of Spanish onions, strings of sausages and hams from Granada, which Don Fernando always said were the best in Spain. I think his custom was chiefly among the servants of the neighbourhood. This district of Santa Cruz was then the most elegant in Seville. Tortuous white streets, with large houses, and here and there a church. It was strangely deserted. If you went out in the morning you might see a lady in black, with her maid, going to mass; sometimes a huckster passed along with his donkey, his wares in great open panniers; or a beggar, stopping at house after house, who raised his voice at each reja, the wrought iron gate that led into the patio, and begged for alms with the phrase of immemorial usage. At nightfall the ladies who had been driving in the Paseo in a landau drawn by two horses came home again and the streets resounded with the clatter of the horses' hooves. Then all again grew silent. This was many years ago. I write now of the last years of the nineteenth century.

Don Fernando was small even for a Spaniard, but he was very fat. His round brown face shone with sweat and he had always two days' growth of beard. Never more and never less. I do not know how he managed it. He was incredibly dirty. He had large black shining eyes, with extremely long lashes, and they were at the same time sharp, good-natured and gay. He was a wag and he enjoyed his own dry humour. He spoke in the soft Andalusian Spanish from which the Moorish influence has eliminated the harshness of Castile and it was not till I had learnt the language pretty well that I found him easy to understand. He was an aficionado of the bull-ring and it was his boast that the great Guerrita came in now and then to drink a glass of wine with him. He was a bachelor and lived alone with a scrubby, pale-faced boy whom he had got from the orphanage and who did the cooking, washed the glasses and swept the floor. This boy had the most pronounced squint I ever saw.

But Don Fernando did not only sell you as good a glass of mazanilla as you could get in Seville; he also dealt in curios.. That was why I dropped in to see him so often. You never knew what he might have to show you. I suppose the things came through a confidential servant from the houses in the neighbourhood. Their owners, temporarily embarrassed, were too proud to take them to a shop. They were for the most part small and easily portable, pieces of silver, lace, old fans with sticks of mother-of-pearl decorated with gold, crucifixes, paste ornaments and antique rings of baroque design. Don Fernando seldom acquired a piece of furniture; but when he did, a bargueño or a pair of straight-backed chairs, with leather seats and all studded with nails, he would keep it upstairs in the bedroom he shared with the foundling. I had very little money and he knew I could only buy trifles, but he loved to show his purchases and two or three times he took me up into his room. The windows were closed to keep out the heat by day and the noxious airs by night and it was very dirty. It stank. In opposite corners of the room were two small iron beds, unmade at whatever time of day you went in, and the sheets looked as though they had not been washed for months. The floor was strewn with cigarette-ends. Don Fernando's eyes would shine more brightly than ever when he passed his grubby, podgy band over the wood of a chair that had been polished by the usage of three centuries. He would spit on the dusty gilt surface of a tabernacle and rub the place with his finger to show you with delight the exquisite quality of the gold. Sometimes, while you stood at the bar, he would fish out from behind it the pieces of a pair of ear-rings, those old heavy Spanish ear-rings in three tiers, and assemble them delicately so that you might admire the beauty of the paste and the elegance of the setting. He had a way of handling these things, sensual and tender, that showed you more than any words he might have spoken how profound a feeling he had for them. When he flicked open an old fan, with the peculiar click that the Spanish woman gives, and fanned himself, an old fan a great lady in her mantilla had flaunted at a bull-fight when Charles III was King of Spain, you could not but feel that, ignorant though he was, he had some vague, delightful emotion of the past.

Don Fernando bought cheaply and sold cheaply; and so, after bargaining for days, often for weeks, which I think we both enjoyed, I was able to get from him little by little a number of objects which were not of the smallest use to me, but which I hankered after because their associations appealed to my fancy. So I bought the fans that pretty women, dead a hundred and fifty years ago, had flirted, the ear-rings they wore in their ears, the fantastic rings they wore on their fingers and the crucifixes they hung in their rooms. It was junk and in the passage of time it has all been stolen, lost or given away. Of all I bought from Don Fernando I have now nothing but a book, and that I did not want and bought against my will. One day as I stepped across the threshold Don Fernando addressed me forthwith.

'I've got something for you,' he said. 'I bought it especially for you.'

'What is it?'

'A book.'

He opened a drawer in the bar and brought out a little squat volume bound in dirty parchment. My face fell.

'I don't want that.'

'But look at it. It's an old book. It's more than three hundred years old.'

He opened it and showed me the title page. There it was all right, the date 1586, with the imprint of Madrid and the publisher's name: Por la viuda de Alonso Gomez Impressor de la C.R.M.

'It doesn't cost anything,' he went on. 'I'll give it you for fifty pesetas.'

'But I don't want it at any price.'

'It's a celebrated book. When it was brought to me I said to myself: Don Guillermo will like that. He'a an educated man.'

'My eye and Betty Martin." (Not many people know the Spanish for that.) 'Sell it to somebody else. I'm not a book collector. I only buy books to read.'

'But why shouldn't you read this? It's very interesting.'

'Not to me.'

'A book three hundred years old? Come, man, don't say things like that to me. Look, there's writing on the margins in places and there's writing on the back page. That shows you it's old.'

It was true that some reader had written notes here and there in a hand that might very well have been of the seventeenth century, but I could not decipher a word. I turned a few pages. It was beautifully printed on strong, fine paper, but the type was so close-set that it was difficult to read. The old spelling, the abbreviations I noticed, made it hard to understand. I shook my head firmly and handed the book back to Don Fernando.

'You can have it for forty pesetas. I paid thirty-five for it myself.'

'I wouldn't have it as a gift.'

He shrugged his shoulders with a sigh and put the book away.

A few days later I happened to pass the tavern on horseback and Don Fernando, who was standing at the doorway sucking a toothpick, called me.

'Come in a moment; I've got something to say to you.'

I dismounted and gave the bridle to the boy. Don Fernando put the book in my hands.

'I'll give it you for thirty pesetas. I lose five on it, but I want you to have it.'

'But I don't want the book,' I cried.

'Twenty-five pesetas.'

'No.'

'You needn't read it. Put it in your library.'

'I haven't got a library.'

'But you ought to have a library. Start your library with this book. It's a beautiful book.'

'It isn't a beautiful book.'

And it wasn't. Even though I knew I should never read it I might have been tempted if it had been bound in leather with a coat of arms in gold, a handsome folio with wide margins. But it was an ugly little volume, much too thick for its height, and the parchment with which it was bound was crinkled and yellow. I was determined not to have the book. Don Fernando, I do not know why, was determined that I should; and after that I never went into the tavern without his attacking me. He flattered me, he cajoled me, he threw himself on my mercy, he appealed to my sense of justice; he came down in his price to twenty pesetas, to ten, but I stood firm. Then one day he got hold of a wooden statuette of St. Anthony, obviously of the seventeenth century, beautifully carved and painted, that I immediately set my heart on. We bargained over it for several weeks until at last we arrived somewhere near the price that he was prepared to let it go for and that I was able to pay. The difference between us was only twenty pesetas. I forget the exact sum. I think he was asking a hundred and thirty pesetas and I was offering a hundred and ten.

'Give me a hundred and thirty for the statue and the book,' he said, 'and you'll never regret it.'

'Curse the book,' I cried in exasperation.

I paid for my drink and walked to the door. Don Fernando called me back.

'Listen,' he said.

I turned round. He came towards me, an ingratiating smile on his fat, red lips, with the statuette in one hand and the book in the other.

'I'll give you the statuette for a hundred and twenty pesetas and I'll make you a present of the book.'

A hundred and twenty pesetas was the price I had all along made up my mind to give.

'I'll pay that,' I said, 'but you can keep the book.'

'It's a present.'

'I don't want a present.'

'But I want to make you one. It's a pleasure for me. You can't refuse a present. Come, man.'

I sighed. I was beaten. I was a trifle ashamed.

'I'll give you twenty pesetas for the book.'

'Even at that it's a present,' he said. 'You could sell it in Madrid for two hundred.'

He wrapped it up in a dirty piece of newspaper; I paid my money, and with the book in my hand and the statuette under my arm, walked home.

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