IT IS an unwise thing, Señor, and there also is wickedness in it, to make a vow to the Blessed Virgin--or, for that matter, to the smallest saint in the whole calendar--and not to fulfil that vow when the Blessed Virgin, or the saint, as the case may be, has performed punctually all that the vow was made for: and so this gentleman of whom I now am speaking found out for himself, and most uncomfortably, when he died with an unfulfilled vow on his shoulders--and had to take some of the time that he otherwise would have spent pleasantly in heaven among the angels in order to do after he was dead what he had promised to do, and what he most certainly ought to have done, while he still was alive.
The name of this gentleman who so badly neglected his duty, Señor, was Don Tristan de Alculer; and he was a humble but honorable Spanish merchant who came from the Filipinas to live here in the City of Mexico; and he came in the time when the Viceroy was the Marqués de Villa Manrique, and most likely as the result of that Viceroy's doings and orderings: because the Marqués de Villa Manrique gave great attention to enlarging the trade with the East through the Filipinas--as was found out by the English corsairs, so that Don Francisco Draco, who was the greatest pirate of all of them, was able to capture a galleon laden almost to sinking with nothing but silver and gold.
With Don Tristan, who was of an elderliness, came his son to help him in his merchanting; and this son was named Tristan also, and was a most worthy young gentleman, very capable in the management of mercantile affairs. Having in their purses but a light lining, their commerce at its beginning was of a smallness; and they took for their home a mean house in a little street so poor and so deserted that nobody had taken the trouble to give a name to it: the very street that ever since their time has been called the Alley of the Dead Man--because of what happened as the result of Don Tristan's unfulfilled vow. That they were most respectable people is made clear by the fact that the Archbishop himself--who at that period was the illustrious Don Fray García de Santa María Mendoza--was the friend of them; and especially the friend of Don Tristan the elder, who frequently consulted with him in regard to the state of his soul.
So a number of prospering years passed on, Señor, and then, on a time, Don Tristan the son went down to the coast to make some buyings: and it was in the bad season, and the fever seized him so fiercely that all in a moment the feet and half the legs of him fairly were inside of death's door. Then it was that Don Tristan, being in sore trouble because of his son's desperate illness, made the vow that I am telling you about. He made it to the Blessed Virgin of Guadalupe; and he vowed to her that if she would save his son alive to him from the fever he would walk on his bare feet from his own house to her Sanctuary, and that there in her Sanctuary he would make his thanks to her from the deep depths of his soul. And the Blessed Virgin, being full of love and of amiability, was pleased to listen to the prayer of Don Tristan, and to believe the vow that went along with it: wherefore she caused the fever immediately to leave the sick Don Tristan--and presently home he came to his father alive and well.
But Don Tristan, having got from the Blessed Virgin all that he had asked of her, did not give to her what he had promised to give to her in return. Being by that time an aged gentleman, and also being much afflicted with rheumatism, the thought of taking a walk of near to three miles barefoot was most distasteful to him. And so he put his walk off for a week or two--saying to himself that the Blessed Virgin would not be in any hurry about the matter; and then he put it off for another week or two; and in that way--because each time that he was for keeping his vow shivers would come in his old feet at dread of being bare and having cold earth under them, and trembles would come in his old thin legs at dread of more rheumatism--the time slipped on and on, and the Blessed Virgin did not get her due.
But his soul was not easy inside of him, Señor--and it could not be, because he was playing fast and loose with it--and so he laid the whole matter before his friend the Archbishop: hoping that for friendship's sake the Archbishop would be so obliging as to dispense him from his vow. For myself, Señor, I cannot but think that the Archbishop--for all that his position put him in close touch with heavenly matters, and gave him the right to deal with them--was not well advised in his action. At any rate, what he did was to tranquillize Don Tristan by telling him that the Blessed Virgin was too considerate to hold him to a contract that certainly would lay him up with a bad attack of rheumatism; and that even--so wearied out would he be by forcing his old thin legs to carry him all that distance--might be the death of him. And so the upshot of it was that the Archbishop, being an easy-going and a very good-natured gentleman, dispensed Don Tristan from his vow.
But a vow, Señor, is a vow--and even an Archbishop cannot cast one loose from it; and so they all found out on this occasion, and in a hurry--because the Blessed Virgin, while never huffed over trifles, does not let the grass grow under her feet when her anger justly is aroused.
Only three days after Don Tristan had received his dispensation--to which, as the event proved, he was not entitled--the Archbishop went on the twelfth of the month, in accordance with the custom observed in that matter, to celebrate mass at the Villa de Guadalupe in Our Lady's Sanctuary. The mass being ended, he came homeward on his mule by the causeway to the City; and as he rode along easily he was put into a great surprise by seeing Don Tristan walking toward him, and by perceiving that he was of a most dismal dead paleness and that his feet were bare. For a moment Don Tristan paused beside the Archbishop--whose mule had stopped short, all in a tremble--and clasped his hand with a hand that was of an icy coldness; then he passed onward--saying in a dismal voice, rusty and cavernous, that for his soul's saving he was fulfilling the vow that he had made to her Ladyship: because the knowledge had come to him that if this vow were not accomplished he certainly would spend the whole of Eternity blistering in hell! Having thus explained matters, not a word more did Don Tristan have to say for himself; nor did he even look backward, as he walked away slowly and painfully on his bare old feet toward Our Lady's shrine.
The Archbishop trembled as much as his mule did, Señor, being sure that strange and terrible things were about him; and when the mule a little came out of her fright and could march again, but still trembling, he went straight to Don Tristan's house to find out--though in his heart he knew what his finding would be--the full meaning of this awesome prodigy. And he found at Don Tristan's house what he knew in his heart he would find there: and that was Don Tristan, the four lighted death-candles around him, lying on his bed death-struck--his death-white cold hands clasped on his breast on the black pall covering him, and on his death-white face the very look that was on it as he went to the keeping of his unkept vow! Therefore the Archbishop was seized with a hot and a cold shuddering, and his teeth rattled in the head of him; and straightway he and all who were with him--perceiving that they were in the presence of a divine mystery--fell to their knees in wondering awe of what had happened, and together prayed for the peace of Don Tristan's soul.
Very possibly, Señor, the Archbishop and the rest of them did not pray hard enough; or, perhaps, Don Tristan's sin of neglect was so serious a matter that a long spell in Purgatory was required of him before he could be suffered to pass on to a more comfortable region and be at ease. At any rate, almost immediately he took to walking at midnight in the little street that for so long he had lived in--always wrapped in a long white shroud that fluttered about him in the night wind loosely, and carrying always a yellow-blazing great candle; and so being a most terrifying personage to encounter as he marched slowly up and down. Therefore everybody who dwelt in that street hurried to move away from it, and Don Tristan had it quite to himself in its desertedness--for which reason, as I have mentioned, the Alley of the Dead Man became its name.
I have been told by my friend the cargador, Señor, and also by several other trustworthy persons, that Don Tristan--though more than three hundred years have passed since the death of him--has not entirely given up his marchings. Certainly, for myself, I do not think that it would be judicious to walk in the Callejón del Muerto at midnight even now.