WHO Padre Lecuona was, Señor, and what he did or had done to him in this street that caused his name to be given to it, I do not know. The Padre about whom I now am telling you, who had this strange thing happen to him in this street, was named Lanza; but he was called by everybody Lanchitas--according to our custom of giving such endearing diminutives to the names of those whom we love. He deserved to be loved, this excellent Padre Lanchitas: because he himself loved everybody, and freely gave to all in sickness or in trouble his loving aid. Confessing to him was a pleasure; and his absolution was worth having, because it was given always with the approval of the good God. My own grandfather knew him well, Señor, having known a man who had seen him when he was a boy. Therefore this strange story about him is true.
On a night--and it was a desponding night, because rain was falling and there was a chill wind--Padre Lanchitas was hurrying to the house of a friend of his, where every week he and three other gentlemen of a Friday evening played malilla together. It is a very serious game, Señor, and to play it well requires a large mind. He was late, and that was why he was hurrying.
When he was nearly come to the house of his friend--and glad to get there because of the rain and the cold--he was stopped by an old woman plucking at his wet cloak and speaking to him. And the old woman begged him for God's mercy to come quickly and confess a dying man. Now that is a call, Señor, that a priest may not refuse; but because his not joining them would inconvenience his friends, who could not play at their game of malilla without him, he asked the woman why she did not go to the parish priest of the parish in which the dying man was. And the woman answered him that only to him would the dying man confess; and she begged him again for God's mercy to hurry with her, or the confession would not be made in time--and then the sin of his refusal would be heavy on his own soul when he himself came to die.
So, then, the Padre went with her, walking behind her along the cold dark streets in the mud with the rain falling; and at last she brought him to the eastern end of this street that is called the Callejón del Padre Lecuona, and to the long old house there that faces toward the church of El Carmen and has a hump in the middle on the top of its front wall. It is a very old house, Señor. It was built in the time when we had Viceroys, instead of the President Porfírio; and it has no windows--only a great door for the entering of carriages at one end of it, and a small door in the middle of it, and another small door at the other end. A person who sells charcoal, Señor, lives there now.
It was to the middle door that the woman brought Padre Lanchitas. The door was not fastened, and at a touch she pushed it open and in they went together--and the first thing that the Padre noticed when he was come through the doorway was a very bad smell. It was the sort of smell, Señor, that is found in very old houses of which all the doors and windows have been shut fast for a very long time. But the Padre had matters more important than bad smells to attend to, and all that he did about it was to hold his handkerchief close to his nose. One little poor candle, stuck on a nail in a board, was set in a far corner; and in another corner was a man lying on a mat spread upon the earth floor; and there was nothing else whatever--excepting cobwebs everywhere, and the bad smell, and the old woman, and the Padre himself--in that room.
That he might see him whom he was to confess, Padre Lanchitas took the candle in his hand and went to the man on the mat and pulled aside the ragged and dirty old blanket that covered him; and then he started back with a very cold qualm in his stomach, saying to the woman: "This man already is dead! He cannot confess! And he has the look of having been dead for a very long while!" And that was true, Señor--for what he saw was a dry and bony head, with yellow skin drawn tight over it, having shut eyes deep sunken. Also, the two hands which rested crossed upon the man's breast were no more than the same dry yellow skin shrunk close over shrunken bones! And, seeing such a bad strange sight, the Padre was uneasy and alarmed.
But the woman said back to him with assurance, yet also coaxingly: "This man is going to confess, Padrecito"--and, so speaking, she fetched from its far corner the board with the nail in it, and took the candle from him and set it fast again upon the nail. And then the man himself, in the light and in the shadow, sat up on the mat and began to recite in a voice that had a rusty note in it the Confiteor Deo--and after that, of course, there was nothing for the Padre to do but to listen to him till the end.
What he told, Señor, being told under the seal of confession, of course remained always a secret. But it was known, later, that he spoke of matters which had happened a good two hundred years back--as the Padre knew because he was a great reader of books of history; and that he put himself into the very middle of those matters and made the terrible crime that he had committed a part of them; and that he ended by telling that in that ancient time he had been killed in a brawl suddenly, and so had died unconfessed and unshriven, and that ever since his soul had blistered in hell.
Hearing such wild talk from him, the Padre was well satisfied that the poor man's wits were wandering in his fever--as happens with many, Señor, in their dying time--and so bade him lie quietly and rest himself; and promised that he would come to him and hear his confession later on.
But the man cried out very urgently that that must not be: declaring that by God's mercy he had been given one single chance to come back again out of Eternity to confess his sins and to be shriven of them; and that unless the Padre did hearken then and there to the confession of his sins, and did shrive him of them, this one chance that God's mercy had given him would be lost and wasted--and back he would go forever to the hot torments of hell.
Therefore the Padre--being sure, by that time, that the man was quite crazy in his fever--let him talk on till he had told the whole story of his frightful sinnings; and then did shrive him, to quiet him--just as you promise the moon to a sick, fretful child. And the devil must have been very uneasy that night, Señor, because the good nature of that kind-hearted priest lost to him what by rights was his own!
As Padre Lanchitas spoke the last words of the absolution, the man fell back again on his mat with a sharp crackling sound like that of dry bones rattling; and the woman had left the room; and the candle was sputtering out its very last sparks. Therefore the Padre went out in a hurry through the still open door into the street; and no sooner had he come there than the door closed behind him sharply, as though some one on the inside had pushed against it strongly to shut it fast.
Out in the street he had expected to find the old woman waiting for him; and he looked about for her everywhere, desiring to tell her that she must send for him when the man's fever left him--that he might return and hear from the man a real confession, and really shrive him of his sins. But the old woman was quite gone. Thinking that she must have slipped past him in the darkness into the house, he knocked at the door lightly, and then loudly; but no answer came to his knocking--and when he tried to push the door open, using all his strength, it held fast against his pushing as firmly as though it had been a part of the stone wall.
So the Padre, having no liking for standing there in the cold and rain uselessly, hurried onward to his friend's house--and was glad to get into the room where his friends were waiting for him, and where plenty of candles were burning, and where it was dry and warm.
He had walked so fast that his forehead was wet with sweat when he took his hat off, and to dry it he put his hand into his pocket for his handkerchief; but his handkerchief was not in his pocket--and then he knew that he must have dropped it in the house where the dying man lay. It was not just a common handkerchief, Señor, but one very finely embroidered--having the letters standing for his name worked upon it, with a wreath around them--that had been made for him by a nun of his acquaintance in a convent of which he was the almoner; and so, as he did not at all like to lose it, he sent his friend's servant to that old house to get it back again. After a good long while, the servant returned: telling that the house was shut fast, and that one of the watch--seeing him knocking at the door of it--had told him that to knock there was only to wear out his knuckles, because no one had lived in that house for years and years!
All of this, as well as all that had gone before it, was so strange and so full of mystery, that Padre Lanchitas then told to his three friends some part of what that evening had happened to him; and it chanced that one of the three was the notary who had in charge the estate of which that very house was a part. And the notary gave Padre Lanchitas his true word for it that the house--because of some entangling law matters--had stood locked fast and empty for as much as a lifetime; and he declared that Padre Lanchitas must be mixing that house with some other house--which would be easy, since all that had happened had been in the rainy dark. But the Padre, on his side, was sure that he had made no mistake in the matter; and they both got a little warm in their talk over it; and they ended by agreeing--so that they might come to a sure settlement--to meet at that old house, and the notary to bring with him the key of it, on the morning of the following day.
So they did meet there, Señor, and they went to the middle door--the one that had opened at a touch from the old woman's hand. But all around that door, as the notary bade Padre Lanchitas observe before they opened it, were unbroken cobwebs; and the keyhole was choked with the dust that had blown into it, little by little, in the years that had passed since it had known a key. And the other two doors of the house were just the same. However, Padre Lanchitas would not admit, even with that proof against him, that he was mistaken; and the notary, smiling at him but willing to satisfy him, picked out the dust from the keyhole and got the key into it and forced back hardly the rusty bolt of the lock--and together they went inside.
Coming from the bright sunshine into that dusky place--lighted only from the doorway, and the door but part way open because it was loose on its old hinges and stuck fast--they could see at first nothing more than that the room was empty and bare. What they did find, though--and the Padre well remembered it--was the bad smell. But the notary said that just such bad smells were in all old shut-up houses, and it proved nothing; while the cobwebs and the closed keyhole did prove most certainly that Padre Lanchitas had not entered that house the night before--and that nobody had entered it for years and years. To what the notary said there was nothing to be answered; and the Padre--not satisfied, but forced to give in to such strong proof that he was mistaken--was about to come away out of the house, and so have done with it. But just then, Señor, he made a very wonderful and horrifying discovery. By that time his eyes had grown accustomed to the shadows; and so he saw over in one corner--lying on the floor close beside where the man had lain whose confession he had taken--a glint of something whitish. And, Señor, it was his very own handkerchief that he had lost!
That was enough to satisfy even the notary; and as nothing more was to be done there they came out, and gladly, from that bad dark place into the sunshine. As for Padre Lanchitas, Señor, he was all mazed and daunted--knowing then the terrible truth that he had confessed a dead man; and, what was worse, that he had given absolution to a sinful soul come hot to him from hell! He held his hat in his hand as he came out from the house--and never did he put it on again: bareheaded he went thenceforward until the end of his days! He was a very good man, and his life had been always a very holy life; but from that time on, till the death of him, he made it still holier by his prayings and his fastings and his endless helpings of the poorest of the poor. At last he died. And it is said, Señor, that in the walls of that old house they found dead men's bones.
By a natural confusion of the name of the street in which the dead man was confessed with the name of the priest who heard his confession, this legend frequently is told nowadays as relating not to Padre Lanza but to Padre Lecuona. An old man whom I met in the Callejón del Padre Lecuona, when I was making search for the scene of the confession, told me the story in that way--and pointed out the house to me in all sincerity. Following that telling, I so mixed the matter myself in my first publication of the legend. Who Padre Lecuona was, or why the street was named after him, I have not discovered. Probably still another legend lurks there. Señor Riva Palacio tells the story as of an unnamed friar "whom God now holds in his glory," and assigns it to the year 1731. The motive of the story is found in Spain long before the oldest date assigned to it in Mexico. The wicked hero of Calderon's play, La devocion de la Cruz, is permitted to purge his sinful soul by confession after death. The Padre Lanza whose name has been tacked fast to the story--probably because his well-known charitable ministrations to the poor made him a likely person to yield to the old woman's importunities--was a real man who lived in the City of Mexico, greatly loved and respected, in the early years of the nineteenth century. Señor Roa Bárcena fixes the decade 1820-1830 as the date of his strange adventure with a dead body in which was a living soul.
Aside from minor variants, two distinct versions of this legend are current. That which I have given in my text is the more popular. The other, less widely known, has for its scene an old house in the Calle de Olmedo--nearly a mile away from the Callejón del Padre Lecuona, and in a far more ancient quarter of the City. Concisely stated, the Calle de Olmedo version is to this effect:
Brother Mendo, a worthy and kind-hearted friar, is met of a dark night in the street by a man who begs him to come and hear a dying person confess. The friar wears the habit of his Order, and from his girdle hangs his rosary. He is led to a house near by; and finds within the house a very beautiful woman, richly clad in silks, whose arms are bound. That she is not in a dying state is obvious, and the friar asks for an explanation. For answer, the man tells him roughly: "This woman is about to die by violence. I must give her death. As you please, wash clean her sinful soul--or leave it foul!" At that, he yields, and her confession begins. It is so prolonged that the man, losing patience, ends it abruptly by thrusting forth the friar from the house. Through the closed door he hears shrieks and tries to re-enter; but the door remains closed firmly, and his knocking is unheeded. He finds that his rosary no longer is at his girdle. In order to recover it, and to allay his fears for the woman's safety, he calls a watchman to aid him by demanding in the name of the law that the door shall be opened. No response is made from within to their violent knocking; and an old woman, aroused by it, comes out from a nearby dwelling and tells them that knocking there is useless--that through all her long lifetime she has lived beside that house, and that never through all her long lifetime has that house been inhabited. The watchman--holding his lantern close to the door, and so perceiving that what she tells is verified by the caked dust that fills its crevices and that clogs its key-hole--is for abandoning their attempt to enter. The friar insists that they must enter: that his rosary is within the house; that he is determined to recover it; that the door must be forced. Yielding to him, the watchman forces the door and together they enter: to find a yellowed skeleton upon the floor; scattered around it scraps of mouldering silk; in the eye-sockets of the skull cobwebs--and lying across that yellowed skeleton is the friar's rosary! Brother Mendo covers his face with his hands, totters for a moment, and then falls dying as he exclaims in horror: "Holy God! I have confessed a soul from the other life!" And the crowd of neighbors, by that time assembled, cries out: "Brother Mendo is dead because he has confessed the dead!"
Legend of the Callejón del Padre Lecuona
Janvier, Thomas A.
Legends of the City of Mexico
Janvier, Thomas A.
Harper & Brothers
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