Zalacain the Adventurer- Pío Baroja

A path running down from the fort passes across the top end of the cemetery and through the French gate.  This path has several stone crosses along it at the upper end which lead to a chapel and at the lower end, when it goes into town, it becomes a street.  Many years ago, on the left of the path, just before the city wall, there was a half-ruined, old farmhouse, its tiled roof weighted down with stones and its sandstone walls eaten away by the damp and the air.  On the front of the poor and decrepit house, a hole showed where there had once been a shield, and under it could be made out, rather than clearly read, a few letters that went together to make a Latin phrase: post cimera virtis vivit.

Martín Zalacaín de Urbia, who was later to be known as Zalacaín the Adventurer, was born in this farmhouse and passed his early childhood there.  In this house he dreamed up his first adventures and broke in his first trousers.

The Zalacaín family lived a short distance from Urbia but neither Martin nor his family were citizens.  Their house was a few metres outside what would count as city limits.

Martin’s father was a labourer, a dark and taciturn man who died in a smallpox epidemic.  Martin’s mother did not have much character either: she lived with the gloomy psychology typical amongst country folk and went from unmarried to married and from married to widow with absolute indifference.  When her husband died she was left with two children, Martin and a younger daughter called Ignacia.

The farmhouse where the Zalacaín family lived belonged to the Ohando family, the most ancient, aristocratic and rich family in Urbia.

Martin’s mother lived almost entirely on the charity of the Ohandos.

In such poor and miserable conditions it would seem logical that, by the effects of heredity and environment, Martin should have turned out like his mother and father: gloomy, timid and belittled; but the boy turned out decisive, brave and bold.

In those days children didn’t go to school as much as now and Martin spent a lot of time without going to sit on those benches.  All he knew about school was that it was a dark place, with some big white posters on the walls, none of which gave him much encouragement to go.  He was also put off attending this modest centre of learning because the street children did not think of him as one of their own, since he lived outside the town and always walked around in rags.

For this reason he hated them and, when some children from out of town came down the street throwing stones at the citizens, Martin was one of the most enthusiastic participants in the fighting.  He was the captain of the barbarian hordes, directed them and even seemed to dominate them.

Amongst the other children his boldness and bravery made him stand out.  There was no corner of the town that Martin did not know.  For him Urbia was the sum of all beauty, the compendium of all interest and magnificence.

Nobody looked after him.  He did not share school with the other children and he ferreted around everywhere.  His abandon compelled him to form his ideas spontaneously and to temper his bravery with prudence.

Whilst children his age were learning to read, he was going around the city walls, with no fear of the tumble-down blocks of stone or the brambles that blocked his way.  He knew where to find turtle doves and tried to get their nests.  He stole fruit and picked blackberries and wild strawberries.

At eight years of age, Martin enjoyed the kind of ill-repute that would have dignified a grown man.  One day, on leaving school, Carlos Ohando, the son of the rich family that gave the farmhouse in charity to Martin’s mother, pointed him out with his finger and shouted:

“That’s him!  He is a thief!”

“Me?” exclaimed Martin.

“Yes, you.  The other day I saw you stealing pears from my house.  Your whole family are thieves.”

Martin, although he could not deny the truth of the charge against his own person, felt he could not permit this insult to the Zalacain family, and throwing himself on the young Ochando, gave him a resounding thump.  Ochando replied with a punch.  The two seized each other and fell to the ground; they set upon each other; but Martin, who was stronger, always managed to knock the other down.  A sandal-maker had to intervene in the dispute and by kicking and shoving, separated the two adversaries.  Martin came away triumphant and the young Ochando went home battered and torn.

Martin’s mother, when she heard what had happened, wanted to make her son go to the Ochando house and ask forgiveness from Carlos; but Martin said that they would have to kill him first.  She had to take it upon herself to go to the powerful family with all kinds of excuses and explanations.

From then on the mother looked on her son as a reprobate.

“How did this boy turn out like this?” she would say; and thinking of him gave her mixed feelings of love and sorrow, which could only be compared to the shock and desperation of a hen when it sets duck eggs and sees that the babies head into the water fearlessly and bravely swim off.

About Jason Preater

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