THE little church stood in the shadow of acacia trees. A narrow gravel path lined with cucharita hedges led from the street into its cool, quiet yard with the moss on the dim boles of the trees and the dew on the grasses. The roar of the dusty, blindingly white city surged and broke like a sea along the concrete pavements that skirted the churchyard, but went no farther.
At the whitewashed wooden gate, the young man stood diffidently. Nervously fingering his battered felt hat, he pushed in the gate, stepped inside, allowed it to swing back, and then slowly walked down the path.
The chilly dampness of the place rested like a cool hand upon his fevered brow, and he expelled a breath of relief. He walked as slowly as he could, savoring through all the pores of his lean young frame the balm of this sudden reprieve from the heat and brutal impersonality of the big city.
Three concrete steps led up into the vestibule. At the top step he saw the congregation inside the heavy hardwood doors, and hesitated.
“I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.
“And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that , and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.”
The voice was long and sonorous, and it struck a responsive chord in the young man’s heart, but he could not see the speaker. The last pew hid the altar from him. Over the pew he could see the fluted row of organ pipes, the massive rivet-studded rafters, light that streamed down at a deep angle from a tall window of colored glass.
“For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith.”
For perhaps an hour the young man stood at the door, feeling deeply unhappy, frightened, and lost. He dared not enter. He looked down at his torn, dusty shoes, his stained clothes, felt the growth of beard on his chin, and already he could feel the cold eyes of the people in the church examining him. He retired quietly to one side of the vestibule, where he could not be seen from the inside, and leaned against the wall to rest his trembling limbs.
And then the people began streaming out, and he felt relieved that they did not even glance his way. After a while, he looked into the door. There was no one in. He crossed himself quickly and entered.
For a long time he sat there staring dully at the sounding emptiness before him, for breaking against the wall still was the reverberation of bells tolled a long time ago.
Through all this he could hear his heart beating in a weak slow measure, and again the beatific sense of completeness and of being filled his soul like mellow wine. The seat was deep and restful. The wood was firm and cool. He sank back and fell asleep.
When he woke up, he saw that his hat had fallen to the floor. The five-centavo pancit mami that he had eaten last night had already evaporated, and he felt a shot of pain in his middle as he stooped down to recover his hat. After the pain, a weakness and trembling seized his limbs, and cold sweat beaded his forehead. The church swam before his eyes.
Sunlight streamed through the west windows. From its angle he knew it must be late in the afternoon. He had been asleep in the church for the greater part of the day, and now he felt again vaguely forsaken, and the chill and the solitude were no longer very soothing but were almost terrifying.
Rocking from one foot to the other, he got up hastily and made for the door, and it was then that he saw the girl standing at his back.
“I’ve been watching you,” she said, smiling gently, and her hair looked like a halo for the sunlight crowned it with gold. “You’ve been asleep,” she continued.
“I’m sorry,” he began weakly. “I didn’t mean to–”
“Yes? But let’s take a seat, please.”
He licked his dry lips. “I didn’t mean to sleep here. I just fell asleep, that’s all.”
“There’s no harm in that, I’m sure,” she said reassuringly taking her seat beside him and pulling him down. “You’re a stranger here?”
“I came to the city about a week ago.”
“Staying with relatives?” Her voice was direct and cool.
“No relatives, ma’am. I thought I could get a job here. I had heard so much about opportunities here, and I wanted to work myself through college…”
She listened quietly. The quick responsive look in her eyes brought his confidence back and made him give details about his life and his recent misadventures he would not have revealed otherwise.
“We are from the same province as you,” she said. “My father works in the city hall. He got transferred here because my mother wants to see us through school. Come home with me, ha? We want you to tell us about the province. It was five years ago when we were there last. Yes, they will like to see you. Don’t be ashamed. You can’t blame people for not knowing any one in the city.”
She was only sixteen, or thereabouts, he could see in the calesa which they took; she was dressed in white, simply and cleanly, almost to the point of the anaesthetic severity of the nurse, but there was a subtle perfume about her like that of rosal and then again like that of sampaguita, and the lines of her face were clean and young and sweet.
“Why, I’d be ashamed–” he began again, looking at himself with horror.
“No more of that, ha?” She flashed a smile at him, her lips a light rose like her cheeks, her eyes crinkling at the corners.
The horses’ hoofs beat a tattoo on the street cobbles, round this corner, round that corner, ancient Spanish houses under acacia trees, rows of tenements, sounding walls of old Intramuros, a tangle of horse-drawn and motor traffic.
Everything went suddenly white at once.
The first thing that he knew was the mildly pungent smell of rubbing alcohol and liniment. The place he was in was dark, except for a street light that came in through the billowing curtain in the window. He was in a bed, a deep wide bed, with mattress and cool covers fragrant with soap and starch and ironing. From beyond the darkness to one side came to him the faint sound of voices and the tinkle of a piano.
He jerked up with a great consciousness of guilt, but he sank back again, dizziness swamping him back and overpowering him. Lying back there, accusing himself of imposing on a stranger’s hospitality, he began to cry, but he wiped away his tears quickly when he saw the door slowly open and a head showed in the opening.
“Oh, you’re awake now.”
It was the girl, and she ran softly in. He felt greatly disturbed within. She was looking down now and her hand was upon his brow and he could feel the warmth of her and get the smell of her.
“Good!” she exclaimed and ran lightly out, closing the door behind her. In a minute, she was back with two other persons. A switch clicked and the room sprang into light, and he could see there was an elderly woman whom she resembled closely, and an elderly man in pajamas.
“Well!” said the man heartily. He had a pipe gripped by the bowl in one of his hands. “So this is the cababayan. Well!”
The woman came over and laid her hand on his forehead. A wedding ring shone on one finger. He looked up into her eyes, and all at once he knew he need not be afraid…
The girl’s parents, it later developed, were among the more influential of the parishioners, and he was able to get a job through them as church janitor, with bed and board provided free in the servants’ quarters of the rectory. Besides sprucing up the church, he had charge of the lawn which he mowed and the hedges which he trimmed. Out of his pay of twenty pesos a month he managed to send home ten pesos to his mother in the month’s-end mail.
“Good morning,” he would say humbly to the girl, Lita, when Sundays came and she was in the church. Then he would hurry before her to dust the pew she always took with her parents.
“How do you do?” Lita would ask, and sometimes she would say, “Pedro, you must come and get your Sunday dinner with us. You don’t do it so regularly, now.”
From the back of the congregation, dressed in his best white-cotton suit, his eighty-centavo necktie, his tan-and-white Gandara shoes, he would listen raptly to her sing in the choir. He could always tell her voice, and he could always see her lovely radiant face magnified among the rows of others.
Three afternoons a week, a calesa would halt at the church gate, and Lita would alight in her plain white dress. She would come down the cucharita-lined path, and she would enter the church where for an hour she would sit or kneel, just looking at the altar, and her lips would move silently. Then would Pedro hush his steps, and he would put aside his lawnmower and his shears and look at Lita longingly through the window, at her profile outlined against the lighted side of the church.
On her seventeenth birthday, Lita gave Pedro a picture. It showed her with eyelashes swept up and lips half-parted in a smile. A stray lock fell against one cheek. One dainty end of a lace bow curled against the straight line of her throat, while the other reclined against the swell of her bosom.
“I can keep this?” asked Pedro wonderingly, and Lita said with a thrill of laughter. “Why yes, it’s yours. Why do you have to ask?”
He had enrolled in a night collegiate course prepared especially for working students, but out of the money for school fees and books he managed to save as much as fifty centavos at a time. He spent his savings for a neat little picture frame, painted black and silver, and put Lita’s picture before him as he pored over his textbooks at home.
“How are you getting along in school?” said Lita one afternoon, after she came out of the church.
“At least I passed in all my subjects last semester.”
“That’s fine. I’m sure you’ll make an engineer yet.” She hesitated at the gate, and turned back to him slowly. “Don’t let anything distract you from your work,” she said. “put your mind on it and keep it there.”
He thought, she looks very young, but too deadly serious. That frown on her face. That mature cast of her mouth. But he only said, “Thank you, Miss Miel.”
“Miss, still?” She laughed again, and the world was shining once more, no longer full of problems and dark and weighty hues, but full of the silvery ringing of bells and the light patter of dancing feet.
“I think I can help you,” she went on. “About trigonometry now. It’s my favorite subject.”
“I cannot understand the cosine of–”
“You mean Thomas’ theory? It’s easy. Like this.” And thereupon she knelt on the path and with a twig traced figures in the light fluff.
“You should make a good engineer, there are such things as women engineers, you know,” he ventured.
“My father said I should,” Lita confided. “But my greatest interest does not lie in that way, Pedro. It lies somewhere else. Should I tell you?” She crinkled her nose at him, but again she was suddenly grave. After a pause: “I’ve never wanted to grow up,” she suddenly shot at him and hurriedly picked herself up, ran out of the gate, hailed a calesa and drove away.
Pedro’s perplexity was solved the following afternoon when Lita came again to the church to pray. It was Saturday afternoon and Pedro was dusting. This time she had on a black veil that fell to the tip of her nose. She was a tiny figure kneeling at the far end of the church. Her head was bowed low, but he thought he could see her lips moving. He moved about on tiptoe, used his mop gently.
He was on the floor reaching under a remote corner when he heard her light “H’lo” behind him. He rose up hastily and nodded his greeting, “Good afternoon, Miss Miel.”
“Good afternoon, Mister Deño.”
“That’s better. Did I startle you yesterday afternoon?”
Then Lita was telling him she was going to be a nun.
“But why?” asked Pedro incredulously.
“Does it sound foolish to you?” Her lashes swept down on her cheek, and for the first time he noticed that she had the pallid look as of one in cloistered, moss-grown nunneries.
“I don’t know,” he said, “I don’t know.” And then he went on, feeling foolish, “But you can’t want to give up all this for life imprisonment.”
“It is not life imprisonment,” she said gravely, “but the essence of what I’ve always wanted. All my life I’ve wanted complete communion with God.”
He shook his head to clear it of the cobweb of pain and dizziness, and her hand crept to his. The touch of it sent an electric shock through his whole frame.
“Even as a child,” she went on, “I had always wanted to have a room that looked much like a church, with a hard, bare floor, and hard, bare seats, and an altar, and an image of Mother and Child.”
She was looking down kindly at him, red spots in her white cheeks. “Now, as I live from day to day, it seems as if I’m being swept farther and farther away from that childhood dream. I want my childhood back. I hunger for its simplicity and its faith. It seems as if deep inside me I’m parched and thirsty, and I need the coolness and dampness of seclusion. You understand, don’t you?”
Again it seemed as if the church rustled with the prayer and devoutness of a congregation, and there was again, that sonorous voice saying, “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God.”
“Good-bye,” said Lita, her long, white, shapely fingers tightening on his rough, dark ones.
“I’ll not see you again?”
She shook her head slowly. Suddenly she bent down and kissed him on the cheek, and as suddenly she ran down the aisle and out of the door.
As he sat in a pew, the bells were silent, but still they seemed to be tolling from far away, the air vibrating with their ringing. He sat in the pew and stared dully in front of him. Light streamed in from an eastern window. The ghostly congregation still rustled with its faith and sacrifice. On his cheek her lips were still warm.
But suppose, he thought, it had been some other way. Suppose:
“I’VE been watching you,” she said, smiling gently, and her hair looked like a halo with the sunlight crowning it with gold. “You’ve been asleep,” she continued.
“I’m sorry,” he began weakly. “I didn’t mean to–”
And then they were walking down to the whitewashed gate, and he was vaguely surprised that there was no calesa waiting there. But he went on to cross the street nevertheless, keeping in his eyes the slim, white figure, with the clean, young lines of face.
Outside the churchyard, the traffic was heavy as usual, and the lorry drivers swore mightily at the broken-down old man, with that vague half-smile on his face, who was crossing the street and breaking all rules of pedestrian traffic and all the laws of self-preservation.
“That engineer, Pedro Deño, you know,” said one of a couple driving a car near the scene. “Dirty rich, but damned absent-minded, too.”
“That’s the matter with these successful people,” said the other. “They put their mind on a thing and keep it there, to the exclusion of all others, even motor traffic.”
“Yeh, Deño, for instance. Must be thinking of house plans and bridges.”