His Excellency’s unlimited patience was starting to overflow the generous limits of his round anatomy. At the end of the report he’d just finished reading, troubling and severe, there had also been news added for him in pencil that did nothing but increase the dull irritation he’d started to feel towards his attendant a couple of months ago. For that reason he wanted to eat alone. He gobbled up the consommé, delicately complained because the steak was overdone, asked for a couple slices of ham in exchange, made a mixture of apples and cheese as a kind of dessert, and gave orders that the coffee be served to him in the Saint Ignatius Lounge.
It was his favorite nook on summer days, especially for taking a catnap after lunch and before the study period, which began at exactly four o’clock each afternoon. The thick, red velvet curtains prevented needing to half-close the shutters to fend off the sun, and the large armchairs, the most comfortable in the whole house, invited sleep right there, without having to go through the (for him) insurmountable discomfort of getting into bed at those hours. Only the swarms of flies that would gather in that area, possibly attracted by the nearby presence of the horses, which had their stables right below, stopped that pleasant lounge from being exactly what His Excellency desired.
He was already impatient for them to arrive with the coffee. The servant’s exit and the soft thud of the heavy chestnut door closing behind him were the cue to get comfortable. He unbuttoned his cassock, untied his shoelaces, and covered his bald patch with a white cloth to fend off the flies. Then he rested his head on his right hand, stretched out his legs as far as he could, and let himself be lulled by the familiar noises rising up from the street. He remained like that, peacefully sleepy, for more than an hour.
But that afternoon he wasn’t able to catch a wink. The memory of Don Xenaro’s report grated inside his head like a babble of infuriated words. Ever since the Italian Pietro Barbagelatta had the idea of setting up a cinematograph in the city, His Excellency hadn’t had any peace. First there was the paperwork with the town hall to deny him a permit, which resulted in the disaster he’d predicted beforehand. Then came the pressure on the owner of the building to not rent it out, which turned out to be equally fruitless. Now that thoughtless and anti-evangelical implication, which he swore to himself he wouldn’t allow no matter what.
He still hadn’t had time to think of a radical solution when the soft and childlike voice of Don Xenaro saying, “Your Excellency, Your Excellency,” from the other side of the door disrupted his peace once again. He let a good bit of time pass by without saying a word, and when he’d already decided not to answer, he changed his mind because he figured the attendant would end up coming into the room without his permission. He wasn’t wrong. Before authorizing him to come in, the vast and solid butterball appeared in the doorway, asking loudly if His Excellency was feeling well.
“I feel perfectly fine.”
“Would Your Excellency like me to order him a chamomile tea?” persisted the attendant.
“No, no. Thank you though,” said the bishop, pointing at a seat so Don Xenaro would sit down.
Then he buttoned his cassock and began to tie his shoelaces. He did it calmly, aware of how the forced position gave him an advantage over his adversary and allowed him to adjust the colors in his face, still intensely red. When he sat up, he realized he was wearing the fly-swatting cloth on his head and felt ridiculous. However he decided not to take it off. In that way he regained power over the situation, as was demonstrated in Don Xenaro’s nervousness and his fidgety hands, and he could successfully face the dreaded proposal he imagined was going to be presented to him through his attendant’s mouth.
But he was wrong. The latter’s nervousness was not that of someone who comes to command something, but that of someone who’s going to request. It was a favor. His nephew Antonio Biempica, the firstborn son of his sister Teresa, in whose home His Excellency had tasted the best stew of his life, had eaten the tastiest lamb that had ever caressed his choosy palate, and had polished off a flan that had neither comparison nor equal in the whole diocese, wanted to enter the seminary and be fast-tracked to the priesthood. His age suggested that shortcut to him. And his wisdom, the bishop suspected, wouldn’t take him much further.
His Excellency laughed gleefully to himself, although outwardly he tried as best he could to form a serious bishop-like expression, took the cloth off his head, smiled softly to align the outside of his face with the internal enjoyment he felt, and before giving an answer held off by asking, with a kind of intentional unhurriedness:
“Do you know the story of Don Braulio Fuentes, a priest from my native diocese who I had dealings with at the Mondoñedo seminary?”
His Excellency already knew the response would be a negative before formulating the question, but he waited until Don Xenaro said that he didn’t. Then he lingered with his happy and green eyes fixed upon him for a while, and afterwards spoke to him about that fast-track priest, as dopey as he was saintly, the anecdotes about whom made two generations of Mondoñedo priests cackle with laughter.
The story goes that this Don Braulio, on the day of his first mass, come the solemn hour of consecration he leaned over the altar as the ritual prescribed and stayed like that for five long minutes, before the surprise and anxiousness of the sponsoring priest, who couldn’t understand such a delay even if allowing him the generous window usually given to a first-time priest so that he can recover from the emotion. Two more minutes having gone by, in an audible whisper, the sponsor begged him: “Consecrate, Braulio!” The other, without even moving, twisting his mouth to one side and gesturing with his heavy head, asked: “Do what?” “The host,” responded the assisting priest. “I already ate it!” answered Don Braulio.
Don Xenaro laughed torrentially, with convulsions that went down like ocean waves from his double chin to his chest, where they rested for a few seconds to then die softly in his gut. His Excellency was pleased by his attendant’s happiness. He also thought how that kind of laughter, boisterous and cheerful, pushed away from the conversation, at least on this occasion, the topic of the cinematograph. Although the bishop was well aware of the man’s weakness and the moral cowardice that had paralyzed him so many times in his presence, he wasn’t ignorant of the transformations in character which had taken place in him over the past two years. Pushed by conflicts of conscience and spurred on by a sincere mysticism which he was brought to by his inability to understand the religious crisis threatening the Church, he was able to gather enough strength to form a brave and prophetic expression.
When His Excellency had arrived at the diocese, Don Xenaro was the seminary’s majordomo. Over the course of a private audience, he’d asked to be heard in confession by the prelate. The tears shed, the internal struggles and battles, gigantic like his body, touched the bishop’s compassion deeply, and he asked him to be his attendant right there. It was a mistake. For years he’d hardly created any problems, but lately he’d become an uncomfortable collaborator. His few gifts of the intellectual kind, and a scrupulous loyalty to a conscience tormented by fear, made him ideal prey for those who worked behind closed doors against His Excellency’s diocesan politics.
As he laughed, the bishop contemplated his complete lack of grace. Big and clumsy, his incredibly long and strong arms, his enormous stomach, everything about him had an abnormal and disproportionate dimension to it. His Excellency pictured the pitiful adolescent melancholies, the hurtful deceptions in front of the mirror at the beginning of his youth, his first defeats at social connection. He was going to take pity on him, substituting animosity for mercy, but he didn’t have time. Almost in one jump, the attendant stood up, kissed the bishop’s ring forcefully, reached the door in a couple of strides and left. Underneath the smile with which he tried to soften the involuntary gruffness of his clumsy ways was concealed a cocky expression that ended up darkening His Excellency’s bright eyes.
Translated from Galician by Jacob Rogers