Proa cover_30
Proa: Senyoria
A novel by Jaume Cabré

Extract translated from the Catalan (Senyoria, 1991) by Ted Krasny

This translation was enabled by the generous support of the Institut Ramón Llull

He smiled. It had been a long two years since he had last smiled. His Honour smiled, a hand over his left eye, his right glued to the telescope. It was like re-encountering an old friend, for this was the first nocturnal session of that rainy autumn that he had devoted to surveying the sky, that miraculously cloudless evening. It had been a year since he had observed Orion's nebula and he had missed that magical cluster of four stars, which, according to Monsieur Halley, were moving away from each other at dizzying speed, as if they hated one another. As if there were hatred in the heavens. Don Rafel Massó i Pujades, Civil Regent of the Royal High Court of Barcelona, felt, as he always did when he explored the sky, a sense of impotence, of smallness, of fear of the unknown, because those stars, those wispy clouds that came into reach through the eyepiece, were absurdly distant, solitary, silent, unreachable and unknown. Out of nowhere there came to him the memory of Elvira, poor thing, and Don Rafel's smile vanished. He shook his head to drive out the image and sighed into the darkness of the garden. He sat up and felt in his sleeve for a lace handkerchief. He blew his nose delicately. Whenever he went out to the garden to contemplate the sky, his nose would run. Even though he was wearing a wig, cocked hat and cape. He observed the Orion group with his naked eye and found it more familiar than ever. He put the handkerchief back in his sleeve and when he leant over for another look at the beloved nebula, he stifled a curse, because the image was no longer in the telescope's view. With his tongue out, he took a full minute to recapture the fugitive nebula. Donya Marianna had told him he would catch cold, and, as always, she was right; but he had not wanted to waste the circumstance that night the Barcelona sky lay bare, revealing unabashed all the stars in its autumn stock after so many days of covered skies, the declared enemy of the astronomer. Not that Don Rafel was an astronomer. In his youth, when he first started to fill his head with the strange, mysterious and wayward world of the law, he had still looked around him with curiosity and he made the acquaintance of renowned physicists, such as Don Jacint Dalmases, who introduced him to the world of astronomy. He spent many a sleepless night chasing in vain that double system of the constellation of the Lyre - how awkward the observation of the Lyre, almost always in the zenith! - or the playful and ever-changing frolics of Ganymede, Io, Europa and Callisto - who seem to be engaged in a game of tug-of-war - around lazy, giant Jupiter, their eternal chaperon, who had a mysterious eye in his belly, like a Polyphemus of space. The young Don Rafel had also followed with interest Monsieur Halley's publications and for a time told his friends that he wanted to be an astronomer. But reality imposes itself in the end: he was nearly a lawyer and it was out of the question to blithely cast away so many years devoted to codes, canons, laws and rulings. Don Rafel took his law degree, married and lost the habit of spending his nights tracking the silent mystery of the stars. From time to time he would have the telescope taken out to the garden and he would dream, because he was a born malcontent. He envied the position and wealth of others, the beauty of other men's wives, the wisdom of a few, the prudence of two or three and the happiness of almost no one. Thus his life was made up of constant longing and the restlessness of the discontented heart, which caused him to dream without being a poet, to fall in love without being a Don Juan, to climb the social ladder over the heads of others, in the belief that that was happiness. And being clever, he knew how to hold on to the positions he conquered, even at the cost of others' hatred and envy. But the whole thing was no more than a desperate clutching at happiness. The trouble was that he could not catch hold of it. And in moments of sincere reflection he saw that he was always neither one thing nor the other. Like Jupiter. Don Rafel was like Jupiter: too old, too ambitious, too voluminous to be a solid planet; too small, too weak to become a star with fire, energy and light of its own. All the same, like Jupiter, he had satellites.

"Confound it, it's given me the slip again!" Don Rafel complained to the infinite. Then he heard the footsteps and saw the flickering light. "Douse that quinquet lamp, Hipòlit!" he barked at the approaching beam.

"My lady says to tell you it is time, sir," he heard the voice of the invisible servant.

"I'm coming, I'm coming, man!" And he leant over again. To his disgust, he saw that he had indeed lost the nebula again.

"My lady says", Hipòlit insisted in the dark, "to tell your honour that it has struck eight. And that you must change your wig for the concert."

"Leave me alone," he growled curtly. And he did not shift from his position at the telescope until he felt free of the irritation occasioned by the servant's interruption. But now the inner peace he needed to survey the sky had evaporated. Still stooping a little he walked back to the house in the dark, bumping against the stone benches and his own thoughts, because for a few moments, fleetingly, the image of Elvira had come back into his mind.

* * * * *

At the mansion of the Marquès de Dosrius, in Carrer Ample, the cream of Bourbon Barcelona society met regularly: military men, lawyers, engineers, functionaries, merchant princes, homegrown and imported politicians, and the occasional Frenchman whose fortune had been swept away in the dark days by the winds of revolution and who had found refuge in the fearful, distrustful neighbouring country. All of these good people, the most solidly uncultured individuals, assembled to hear music (listening to it would have entailed too great an effort of sympathy) or to yawn to the sound of the alexandrines ("That vengeance my heart no more than breathes...") inflicted by the guest poet.

Don Rafel liked to be invited to the home of the Marquès de Dosrius because Dosrius, observant of established custom, had not abandoned the practice of having his butler sing out the names of his guests. Don Rafel enjoyed hearing 'His Honour Don Rafel Massó i Pujades, Civil Regent of the Royal High Court of Barcelona, and his lady wife'. The Regent dutifully looked at his wife, Donya Marianna returned his gaze and together they entered the immense salon, the most sumptuous in Carrer Ample, the envy of the Barcelona of quality, the grand drawing room of the Marquès de Dosrius's mansion. The groups of guests who were killing time discreetly criticizing one another found a new subject of conversation with the arrival of the Massós. (Do you see? Don Rafel more gaunt and bent by the day: he looks like a question mark; well, you can see he enjoys his work, mark my words; what do you mean by that?; oh, but I told you...) And the Massós kept straight on, smiling to right and left, toward the stove in the middle of the room where Don Ramon Renau, the elderly Marquès de Dosrius in his brand new Viennese-style silver wig, a blanket over his useless legs, did the honours, seated in an ingenious chair whose system of wheels enabled it to be moved about effortlessly. Behind the old Marquès, the inscrutable Mateu, imperturbable, awaited orders. The Marquès, who liked to give the impression of being the most cantankerous aristocrat in Barcelona, growled on seeing his two new guests and pointed at His Honour's gut with the stick that never left his hand.

"How are things, Don Rafel?"

"Very well, Senyor Marquès." The couple made a deep reverence.

"Run off and criticize me," he gestured toward the other guests, after a few seconds of conversation. "I must attend to the new arrivals."

Obediently the Massós moved off to break into the conversation of a group that, by their sudden change of topic, must have been speaking badly of them. Good evening, Baró, Baronessa, Regent, Don Rafel, smiles, greetings, kissing of hands, sighs, what should we do? Do you know if the Captain General is coming? I believe he is, Senyor Baró, and a fleeting glance of Don Rafel's at Donya Gaietana's powerful bust, it is just that there are things..., for Don Rafel knew, now that the spectacular panniers of yore were no longer the fashion, that it was easier to approach the ladies and explore their cleavage, which was a thrilling adventure, and Don Rafel's hands sweated, as lately they were wont to do when he found himself by Donya Gaietana's side, which was a way of forgetting Elvira's face, poor thing.

"I have heard tell," said Baró de Xerta, ignorant of His Honour's adulterous thoughts, "that this woman has an astounding voice." And his restless eyes darted back and forth as if searching for someone who might back him up.

"One must see and one must judge," Donya Gaietana called for objectivity out of her profound musical ignorance.

"Or rather, one must listen." Don Rafel spoke with a bow, suppressing the quaver in his voice. And the group laughed with elegance and relaxed a little. Fresh presentations, fresh murmurings, discreet reverence from the eminent scientist Don Jacint Dalmases, who was always showing up in circles in which he did not belong; the hand that lingers just a little too long in a kiss for a fair lady and Don Rafel, who sighed again because all the ladies promised breasts much more delightful than those of Donya Marianna. Oh, Elvira! Why..? And Don Rafel's thoughts exploded into a thousand pieces as Doctor Pere Malla, who was ever in the know, joined the group with the news, rigorously corroborated, that Desflors had sung for Monsieur Cherubini, who had been thrilled by her art.

"As I said before," insisted Baró de Xerta. "She is a great singer."

"I cannot wait to hear her," lied Don Rafel, who that evening, now that he had been torn away from his star-gazing, felt rather indifferent towards anything other than breasts, preferably those of the young Baronessa.

"By the way," impatient blow of the heel on the floor from one of the outstanding citizens, "when does this start?"

"Whenever old Renau so chooses," said Baró de Xerta with the complicit smile of the ladies. And Don Rafel thought, you're a fool, Xerta. You don't deserve her. For, though Don Rafel listened, his mind in fact beheld only the bright teeth and moist, smiling lips of Donya Gaietana; every day he was more infatuated with her and in moments of self-sincerity he grew angry with himself because that woman had a great talent for making other men smile under her jackass of a husband's slightly squint-eyed gaze, dear Gaietana, for you I would commit acts of insanity.

"I am sure," Don Rafel cast a casual backward glance, hiding his nose in his lace handkerchief, "that grandfather Dosrius wants to have us on tenterhooks before tossing us... the meat."

"Then we must deny him the pleasure," said the Baró. The group moved over to a wall, the one with the French doors overlooking Carrer Ample. There, beneath a painting of the second Marquès de Dosrius arm-in-arm with an exuberant, interminable lady, who might all by herself symbolize the Bourbon monarchy, the gentlemen left the ladies in chairs in talk of dresses and hairstyles and returned to the middle of the room, guided by the comments of Doctor Dalmases, the most cultured and least welcome of the group: he could claim no title, he mixed with the aristocracy as if it were the most natural thing in the world and it was said that he said he sympathized with the French revolutionaries or who knows what enlightened vermin and, you know, he's a Mason besides, I know that for a fact. Doctor Dalmases, then, thought aloud and stated that the most marvellous instrument was the human voice.

"Which God gave us," pointed out Don Rafel.

"Naturally, Don Rafel," conceded Doctor Dalmases, who scarcely believed in God but did not want an argument. "Were you gentlemen at the concert on All Saints?"

No, actually, as it turns out no one was there, because the only ones who went to the theatre, to listen to music, were those who experienced it in their inner being; at the Marquès de Dosrius's, or at the Marquès de Cartellà's or even at the Palace itself, the orchestrating that people wanted to hear was of a very different kind, and Doctor Dalmases found himself having to describe the All Saints' concert to a most uninterested audience, two pieces by Monsieur Cherubini with a string quartet, you know, and then a piece by someone called van Beethoven, who it seems must be a disciple of Monsieur Haydn, for he reminded me a great deal of him. By the way, have you heard of him?

"Eh?" distracted, Don Rafel was caught napping.

"Of this Dutchman, this van Beethoven?'

"No. First I've heard."

Doctor Malla, the surgeon, who had left his wife with the other ladies, joined the group with a benevolent smile. He widened it upon greeting the hated Civil Regent. For, of those present in that circle, Don Rafel was surely the most envied, hated and feared: he was influential, inflexible and corrupt, three qualities commonly found in the curriculum of those who held the reins of power in Barcelona in those years of our Lord. Doctor Malla kept his smile in place while silently greeting the rest of the circle and had to admit that no, sincerely this van Beethoven did not ring a bell. The name rang no one's bell and Doctor Dalmases, who for a good reason was the best-versed in questions of music, concluded that that the Dutchman had something but one noted in him a certain imitation of such geniuses as Cherubini or Salieri, and everyone agreed completely, what do I know, Fanbetolen or whatever they say he's called.

In fact no one could have been attending to the doctor's words. At that moment the Captain General had entered and all eyes, including Don Rafel's, waspishly turned to him with envy and fear. Now they could begin. The salon was full and four or five footmen were arranging chairs and armchairs so that the thirty-some people who occupied the room might be seated in comfort. Beside the apple green pianoforte, the Marquès de Dosrius, accompanied by the decorously dressed Captain General, struck the floor with his cane to silence the room. A group of eager youths propped up the back wall, dressed in the most dreadful - suffice it to say, not one wore a wig - manner. One young man with a restless gaze and curly fair hair, for example, was so poorly dressed he might have been an artisan. But no doubt he had been allowed in thanks to his companion, the short, elegant young man with black hair and a hooked nose, the one who held a parcel in his hand. The curly-headed one elbowed his companion:

"Why don't you play, Nando? Shall I announce you?"

"Just you try it."

From a door in the opposite wall emerged a lady, opulent, interminable, grandiose, not so much for her volume in itself as for the airs and pose she adopted. Marie de l'Aube Desflors, the Nightingale of Orléans, greeted the Marquès aussi grincheux with a long curtsey and then dedicated another, strictly politic, to the Captain General and yet another, miserly, to the rest of the audience. As if to make clear who was paying. It was then that many noticed that behind the grand dame had appeared an absolute nobody, a grey man, dressed in grey, with a neck beard, timid step and timid gaze, whom, as no one knew, was called Monsieur Vidal and who had situated himself discretely beside the pianoforte with an evident attitude of awaiting orders. One by one, the Marquès de Dosrius's guests stopped clapping and the singer, after spitting some threatening words at her pianofortist, smiling at the public and discreetly clearing her throat, breathed in and shut her eyes to take in the first bars from the pianoforte.

The grand salon of the Marquès de Dosrius's mansion filled with music. Its magic held the guests immobile. As if in a painting by Tremulles or Bayeu: men standing, the elders bewigged, the younger bare-haired, the ladies seated, all eyes focused on the same spot. T

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