Fermina Marquez (1911)
Table of Contents
The glint of light from the visiting room's glass door flashed suddenly over the schoolyard's sandy ground to our feet. Santos looked up and said: "Look, girls."
So we all stared at the perron, where two girls dressed in blue as well as a plump lady in black were indeed standing next to the prefect of studies. All four descended the few steps and, following the avenue which bordered the yard, made for the far end of the grounds, for the terrace whence the valley of the Seine could be seen with Paris in the distance. The prefect of studies was showing the new pupil's relations the sights of his school for the first and last time.
As the girls were walking along the large oval yard, where pupils of all classes were assembled, each of us inspected them at his leisure.
We were a set of impudent, sly young men (between the ages of sixteen and nineteen) who staked our honour on daring anything when it came to disobedience and insolence. We were not brought up in the French tradition and besides, we French were very much in the minority at the school; so much so that the language the pupils commonly spoke amongst themselves was Spanish. The institution's prevailing characteristic was the mockery of all squeamishness and the veneration of the most austere virtues. In short, it was a place where you could hear these words uttered with a heroic ring a hundred times a day: "We South Americans."
Those who would say that (Santos and the others) made up an elite from which all the
pupils (Orientals, Persians, Siamese) were excluded, an elite into which we French were admitted however, in the first place because we were at home in our own country, and then because as a nation we were almost the equals historically of the noble race, the people of reason. That is a feeling we seem to have lost today: you might think we were bastards who were embarrassed to talk about our fathers. These sons of Montevideo shipowners, of guano merchants from Callao, of hat makers from Equador, felt themselves to be the descendants of the Conquistadors to the cores of their being and at every moment of their lives. The respect in which they held Spanish blood — even when this was slightly mixed, as in most cases with them it was, with Indian blood — was so great that all nobiliary pride, all caste fanaticism seem insignificant compared with that sense, the certainty that for ancestors they had peasants who came from Castile or the Asturias. What could be better after all than to live amongst people with such self-respect (and they were scarcely more than children)? I am sure that the small number of former pupils who have stayed in France today gratefully remember our old, illustrious school, Saint Augustine's, more cosmopolitan than a world exhibition, abandoned now, already closed for fifteen years . . .
It was with the memories of one of the most renowned of all nations that we grew up there; Castile was our second country and for years we considered the New World and Spain as being other Holy Lands where God, through the agency of a race of heroes, had put his marvels on display. —Yes, the ethos which had most influence on us was that of the pioneer, of the hero; we did our best to resemble the eldest amongst us whom we admired: Santos for example; his younger brother Pablo; we would innocently copy their behaviour, even the timbre of their voices, and thereby derived great pleasure. This was why we were all standing at this moment near the myrtle hedge which separated the yard from the great avenue in the grounds, overcoming our timidity to gawp at the foreign ladies with unabashed forwardness.
As for the girls, they boldly withstood our combined scrutiny. The older one especially: she walked slowly in front of us, took each one of us in without even once batting an eyelid. When they had gone past, Pablo said very loudly: "pretty girls"; it was what we were all thinking. Then in few words we each gave our verdicts. On the whole, the younger of the two sisters, the one who had a thick coil of black hair running down her back, tied up in a bow with a wide blue ribbon, the little one, was thought beneath our notice or at least too young (she was perhaps twelve or thirteen years old) to merit our attention: we were such men!
But the elder one! We could not find words to express her beauty; or rather, we only hit upon the commonplace which evoked nothing at all; compliments such as velvet eyes, bough in flower, etc, etc. Her sixteen-year-old's waist was so supple and yet so firm; and her hips beneath that waist, might they not be compared to a triumphal garland? And that confident, dancing step showed that this dazzling creature was aware that she adorned the setting in which she was walking . . . Truly, she conjured up a dream of all life's happiness.
"And her shoes, clothes and hairstyle — they're the most recent fashions," was the conclusion of Demoisel, a tall Negro aged eighteen, a brute who habitually claimed, without caring to elaborate further, that his own mother was a "Pahisian from Pahis" and the queen of refined taste in Port-au-Prince.
Now we needed precise information; we were certainly not going to sit down by ourselves and probe our innermost feelings like well-behaved little schoolboys. First we had to know who
Ortega was the only native Spaniard amongst us and for this reason we treated him with deference. Santos set us the example here as in other things. He was really eager to show the young Castilian that he, Santos Iturria of Monterey, had none, absolutely none, of the vulgar, crude South American parvenu in him. He who dominated our little world through his strength and articulateness, was happy to give precedence to the weak, indolent, taciturn Ortega in not a few matters. So it was that in this affair he asked him his opinion first of all. Ortega observed the life of the school, the small, everyday occurrences, the comings and goings of masters and pupils. He answered that he thought these girls were the sisters of Marquez, a new boy, who had entered the second form not long before. He had guessed correctly.
By twisting his wrist for a long time, Demoisel first wrung from little Marquez the Christian name of his younger sister, Pilar; then by twisting slightly harder, he discovered that the eldest was called Fermina. We were standing there watching this torture scene: the Negro shouting in the child's face, the child looking at him resolutely and saying nothing, tears streaming down his cheeks. Courage of that sort is not in keeping with untruthfulness: Marquez was not deceiving us. So we had a word now, a name to repeat to ourselves under our breath, of all names the one which designated her: Fermina, Ferminita . . . just letters in a certain order, a group of syllables, an object without being and yet containing an image and memories, in short something of
you said this word out loud and if she were there, you could make this beautiful girl turn round. Yes, a name to write in our exercise books, in the margins of the rough copies of our Greek proses so as to come across it there again many years later, and on rediscovering it to recite, solemnly, with heartfelt emotion, the foolish words of a lovesong . . .
"Enough of that brutality; leave him be. Go on, just leave him be!" said Santos to Demoisel. The Negro obeyed grudgingly, whereupon little Marquez, starting to talk freely, told us that the plump lady accompanying Pilar and Fermina was not their mother — their mother was dead — but their aunt, a sister of Marquez senior. Marquez senior was one of Colombia's leading bankers. Unable to chaperon his children in Europe, he had entrusted them to his sister, who was affectionately called Mama Dolore. She was a Creole aged about forty, who had once been beautiful and who still had in a face now heavy, large, liquid eyes, which were over-intense, pitying in their looks. The three children and their aunt were to stay in France for four years, then spend two years in Madrid, at the end of which they would all return to Bogota. But there was something which pleased us especially: Mama Dolore and her two nieces were to come and pass every afternoon at Saint Augustine's, until Marquez became accustomed to school life and no longer needed to feel that his family was never far away
help ward off despair.
Thus, we were going to see Fermina Marquez taking walks in the avenues of the grounds every day during the two long afternoon breaks. We had never been afraid of breaking the rules to leave the yard for a smoke in the grounds; and now we had all the more reason . . . We had to return to our prep. The end of this break bore no resemblance to any of the others; life was completely transformed; each of us felt in himself his own high hopes and was astonished to find them so oppressive and so wonderful.
We would say to each other: "If someone is to have her, it will be Santos unless that savage Demoisel takes her by force in some corner of the grounds." Iturria himself realized that he had to watch the Negro while courting Fermina at the same time. Besides, ten or so of us contrived to be at the girls' sides.
It was quite simple: after we had appeared in the playground for a few minutes, we would slip out by vaulting the lattice-gate and by inching our way bent double through the foliage of the coppice. Throughout this operation, the younger ones kept a lookout.
In the grounds, we encountered little Marquez walking with his aunt and sisters. We would greet him and bow gracefully to the ladies. Gradually, we came to accompany Mama Dolore and her nieces in a group. But we were always on the alert and ready to hide in the trees at the slightest sign of danger, as some days the monitors were overzealous and came after us.
These strolls were very pleasant. The girls would not talk much but we felt them close to us and Mama Dolore regaled us with wonderful stories of her country; or else she would impart her first impressions of Paris to us and the thousand and one things which surprised her daily. She had rented a large flat in the avenue de Wagram; but she only returned to it to go to bed, because the shops (what a lot of shops!) were too tempting; she and the "little ones" had their meals in restaurants in the centre of town so as not to miss the "bargains"; and then they had to be at Saint Augustine's every day at one o'clock and so ... "and so the six servants must be having a good time in the avenue Wagram flat!" She was singular, overdressed, wore too much scent, was badly brought-up and charming; she smoked our cigarettes and when she spoke to one of us, she would call him "Queridin" as a lover would do. "Ah for the day when her niece calls me queridin!" Santos used to say.
The parkland opened out in front of us on all sides with its noble avenues — spacious and lofty — between the dense, well-clipped foliage which appeared like walls, terraces of greenery; with its copses where in the play of green, black shadows, the trunks of oaks rose up, swathed in ivy and moss. There were avenues in these grounds of Saint Augustine's worthy of Versailles and Marly. Here and there you could see mighty trees lacerated by cannonball fire from the last war, but which had survived, their great wounds filled in with plasters of tar. And above all, there was the terrace with its vast central staircase and its statue of Saint Augustine all in gilt, dominating the entire valley. This is the valley of the Seine, the domaine of royalty, where the roads and forests seem a continuation of the beautiful parkland and where there is always birdsong. The summer is just beginning: you breathe and the sweetness of France penetrates right to the bottom of your heart.
Near the glasshouse, there was a site laid out for tennis. This was a game for girls, for "yankees", which we looked down on. To appeal to Fermina, Santos and Demoisel invested tennis with a particular prestige. We had racquets and special shoes brought in; it really made a fine picture. Fermina Marquez became very energetic when playing; her strength and agility were wonderful to watch; and she managed to keep an undisturbed dignity and majesty of bearing while engaged at the same time in the most rapid of movements. At that period, wide, open sleeves were being worn; each time the girl raised her arm, her sleeve fell, gradually slipping back beyond her elbow. I am still amazed that she did not sense all our inquiring, hungry looks glued so to speak to her naked arm. One day just after she had returned her racquet to Santos, the game being over, Santos, in front of her, kissed its handle. "Do you really like racquets as much as that?" "And the hand which has held them even more." Santos had taken hold of her wrist and pressed it to his lips. She withdrew her hand sharoly and her bracelet, which had become unfastened, fell to the ground. Santos picked it up, saying that he would keep it. "You wouldn't dare!"
"Oh! I'll do better than that: I'll return it to you at your home in Paris this evening at eleven o'clock."
"I promise you. Just tell the caretaker, so that he can let me in and above all don't breathe a whisper of this to the prefect of studies."
"But couldn't this get you expelled?"
Santos shrugged his shoulders and winked at her to indicate that Mama Dolore was approaching, followed by Pilar, Marquez and Leniot, a fifth-form pupil who had earned the trust of the Creole lady by standing up for Marquez against the teasing of his schoolfellows.
Then in an undertone: "Expulsion for this? Ah! I've already tried it — haven't I, blackman?" Demoisel responded with his bizarre laugh: "Ahi, Ahi!"