Read an Excerpt
José Palacios, his oldest servant, found him floating naked with his eyes open in the purifying waters of his bath and thought he had drowned. He knew this was one of the many ways the General meditated, but the ecstasy in which he lay drifting seemed that of a man no longer of this world. He did not dare come closer but called to him in a hushed voice, complying with the order to awaken him before five so they could leave at dawn. The General came out of his trance and saw in the half-light the clear blue eyes, the curly squirrel-colored hair, the impassive dignity of the steward who attended him every day and who held in his hand a cup of the curative infusion of poppies and gum arabic. The General's hands lacked strength when he grasped the handles of the tub, but he rose up from the medicinal waters in a dolphinlike rush that was surprising in so wasted a body.
"Let's go," he said, "as fast as we can. No one loves us here."
José Palacios had heard him say this so many times and on so many different occasions that he still did not believe it was true, even though the pack animals were ready in the stables and the members of the official delegation were beginning to assemble. In any event, he helped him to dry and draped the square poncho from the uplands over his naked body because the trembling of his hands made the cup rattle. Months before, while putting on a pair of chamois trousers he had not worn since his Babylonian nights in Lima, the General discovered he was losing height as well as weight. Even his nakedness was distinctive, for his body was pale and his face and hands seemed scorched by exposure to the weather. He had turned forty-six this past July, but his rough Caribbean curls were already ashen, his bones were twisted by premature old age, and he had deteriorated so much he did not seem capable of lasting until the following July. Yet his resolute gestures appeared to be those of a man less damaged by life, and he strode without stopping in a circle around nothing. He drank the tea in five scorching swallows that almost blistered his tongue, avoiding his own watery trail along the frayed rush mats on the floor, and it was as if he had drunk the magic potion of resurrection. But he did not say a word until five o'clock had sounded in the bell tower of the nearby cathedral.
"Saturday, May 8, 1830, the Day of the Blessed Virgin, Mediatrix of all Grace," announced the steward. "It has been raining since three o'clock in the morning."
"Since three o'clock in the morning of the seventeenth century," said the General, his voice still shaken by the bitter breath of insomnia. And he added, in all seriousness: "I didn't hear the roosters."
"There are no roosters here," said José Palacios.
"There's nothing here," said the General. "It's the land of the infidel."
For they were in Santa Fe de Bogotá, city of the Holy Faith, two thousand six hundred meters above the level of the distant sea, and the cavernous bedroom with its bare walls, exposed to the icy winds that filtered through ill-fitting windows, was not the most favorable for anyone's health. José Palacios placed the basin of lather on the marble top of the dressing table, along with the red velvet case that held the shaving implements, all of golden metal. He put the small candleholder with its candle on a ledge near the mirror so the General would have enough light, and he brought the brazier to warm his feet. Then he handed him the spectacles with squared lenses and thin silver frames that he always carried for him in his jacket pocket. The General put them on and began to shave, guiding the razor with as much skill in his left hand as in his right, for his ambidexterity was natural to him, and he showed astonishing control of the same wrist that minutes before could not hold a cup. He finished shaving by touch, still walking around the room, for he tried to see himself in the mirror as little as possible so he would not have to look into his own eyes. Then he plucked the hairs in his nose and ears, polished his perfect teeth with charcoal powder on a silver-handled silk brush, trimmed and buffed the nails on his fingers and toes, and at last took off the poncho and poured a large vial of cologne over his entire body, rubbing it in with both hands until the flask was empty. That dawn he officiated at the daily mass of his ablutions with more frenetic severity than usual, trying to purge his body and spirit of twenty years of fruitless wars and the disillusionments of power.
The last visitor he received the night before was Manuela Sáenz, the bold Quiteña who loved him but was not going to follow him to his death. As always she would remain behind, charged with keeping the General informed of everything that happened in his absence, since for some time he had trusted no one but her. He left in her care some articles whose only value was that they had belonged to him, as well as some of his most prized books and two chests containing his personal archives. The previous day, during their brief formal farewell, he had said to her: "I love you a great deal, but I will love you even more if you show more judgment now than ever before." She understood this as another of the many homages he had paid to her in their eight years of ardent love. Of all the people he knew, she was the only one who believed him: this time it was true that he was leaving. But she was also the only person who had at least one telling reason for expecting him to return.
They had not intended to see each other again before the journey. Nevertheless, the lady of the house wanted to present them with the gift of a final, secret farewell, and she had Manuela, dressed in a cavalry uniform, enter through the main stable doors in order to sidestep the prejudices of the overpious local community. Not because they were clandestine lovers, for they were lovers in the full light of day and with great public scandal, but to preserve at all costs the good name of the house. He was even more careful, for he ordered José Palacios not to close the door to the adjoining room that was a necessary passageway for the household servants and where the aides-de-camp on guard duty played cards until long after the visit was over.
Manuela read to him for two hours. She had been young until a short time before, when her flesh began to overtake her age. She smoked a sailor's pipe, used the verbena water favored by the military as her perfume, dressed in men's clothing, and spent time with soldiers, but her husky voice still suited the penumbra of love. She read by the scant light of the candle, sitting in an armchair that bore the last viceroy's coat of arms, and he listened to her in bed, lying on his back, dressed in the civilian clothes he wore at home and covered by the vicuna poncho. Only the rhythm of his breathing indicated that he was not asleep. The book, by the Peruvian Noé Calzadillas, was entitled A Reading of News and Gossip Circulating in Lima in the Year of Our Lord 1826, and she read with a theatrical emphasis that matched the author's style very well.
For the next hour her voice was all that could be heard in the sleeping house. But after the last watch a sudden chorus of men's laughter erupted, rousing all the dogs in the courtyard. He opened his eyes, more intrigued than disturbed, and she closed the book in her lap, marking the page with her thumb.
"Those are your friends," she said to him.
"I have no friends," he said. "And if I do have any left it won't be for long."
"Well, there they are outside, standing guard so you won't be killed," she said.
That was how the General learned what the whole city already knew: not one but several assassination plots against him were brewing, and his last supporters were in the house to try to thwart them. The entrance and the corridors around the interior garden were held by hussars and grenadiers, the Venezuelans who would accompany him to the port of Cartagena de Indias, where he was to board a sailing ship to Europe. Two of them had placed their sleeping mats across the main doorway to the bedroom, and the aides-de-camp would continue playing cards in the adjoining room after Manuela finished reading, but surrounded by so many soldiers of uncertain origin and diverse character, this was not the time for feeling safe about anything. He showed no reaction to the bad news, and with a wave of his hand he ordered Manuela to continue reading.
He always considered death an unavoidable professional hazard. He had fought all his wars in the front lines, without suffering a scratch, and he had moved through enemy fire with such thoughtless serenity that even his officers accepted the easy explanation that he believed himself invulnerable. He had emerged unharmed from every assassination plot against him, and on several occasions his life had been saved because he was not sleeping in his own bed. He did not use an escort, and he ate and drank with no concern for what was offered him, or where. Only Manuela knew that his disinterest was not lack of awareness or fatalism, but rather the melancholy certainty that he would die in his bed, poor and naked and without the consolation of public gratitude.
The only noteworthy change he made that night in the ritual of his insomnia was that he did not take a hot bath before getting into bed. José Palacios had prepared it early, with water steeped in medicinal leaves to heal the General's body and facilitate expectoration, and had kept it at a good temperature for whenever he might want it. But he did not want it. He took two laxative pills for his chronic constipation and settled down to doze to the soothing murmur of Lima's gallant gossip. Then, without warning or apparent cause, he was overcome by an attack of coughing that seemed to shake the very foundations of the house. The officers gambling in the adjacent room were stunned. One of them, the Irishman Belford Hinton Wilson, came to the door in case he was needed, and he saw the General lying face down on the bed, trying to vomit up his insides. Manuela was holding his head over the basin. Jose Palacios, the only man authorized to enter his bedroom without knocking, stood on the alert, next to the bed, until the crisis passed. Then, with his eyes full of tears, the General took a deep breath and pointed to the dressing table.
"Those graveyard flowers are to blame," he said.
As always, for he always found some unpredictable cause for his misfortunes. Manuela, who knew him better than anyone, made a sign to José Palacios to take away the vase with the morning's withered spikenards. The General stretched out again on the bed and closed his eyes, and she resumed reading in the same tone as before. Only when it seemed to her that he had fallen asleep did she place the book on the night table, kiss his forehead, seared with fever, and whisper to José Palacios that after six o'clock that morning she would be waiting for a last goodbye at Cuatro Esquinas, where the King's Highway to Honda began. She wrapped herself in a battle cloak and tiptoed out of the bedroom. Then the General opened his eyes and said to José Palacios in a thin voice:
''Tell Wilson to take her home.''
The order was carried out against Manuela's will, for she thought she could protect herself better than a squadron of lancers. José Palacios lit their way to the stables, around an interior garden with a stone fountain, where the first spikenards of the dawn were beginning to open. The rain had stopped and the wind no longer whistled through the trees, but there was not a single star in the frozen sky. Colonel Belford Wilson repeated the password as he walked in order to quiet the sentries lying on straw mats in the corridor. When he passed the window of the principal reception room, José Palacios saw the master of the house serving coffee to the group of friends, military and civilian, who had volunteered to stand watch until the moment of departure.
When he returned to the bedroom he found the General in the clutches of delirium. He heard him utter disconnected phrases that all fit together into one: "Nobody understood anything." His body burned in a bonfire of fever, and he was farting stony, foul-smelling gas. The next day not even the General would be able to tell if he had been talking in his sleep or raving while awake, and he would not remember anything he said. These were what he called "my crises of dementia." They no longer alarmed anyone, since he had suffered them for over four years without any doctor risking a scientific explanation, and the following day would find him risen from the ashes with his reason intact. José Palacios wrapped him in a blanket, left the candle burning on the marble top of the dressing table, and went out without closing the door so he could continue watching from the adjoining room. He knew he would recover sometime at daybreak and immerse himself in the icy waters of the bath in an effort to restore the strength that had been ravaged by the horror of his nightmares.
It was the end of a clamorous day. A garrison of seven hundred eighty-nine hussars and grenadiers had rebelled on the pretext of demanding payment of wages they had not received for the past three months. But the real reason was this: most of them were from Venezuela, and many had fought wars for the liberation of four different nations, but in recent weeks they had been the victims of so much vituperation and provocation on the streets that they had cause to fear for their safety after the General left the country. The conflict was settled by payment of their travel expenses and a thousand gold pesos instead of the seventy thousand the insurgents had asked for, and at dusk they had marched away to their native land, followed by a pack of women with their baggage and all their children and domestic animals. The din of the bass drums and the military brass band could not drown out the tumultuous shouting of the mobs that set their dogs on them and hurled strings of firecrackers at their feet to make them break step, actions they had never taken against enemy troops. Eleven years earlier, after three long centuries of Spanish domination, the brutal Viceroy Don Juan Samano had fled through those same streets disguised as a pilgrim, but his trunks were full of gold statues and uncut emeralds, sacred toucans and brilliant stained-glass butterflies from Muzo, and there was no lack of people to weep for him from their balconies and throw flowers in his path and offer him heartfelt wishes for a calm sea and a prosperous voyage.