NATURALLY, Señor, this matter which gave its name to the Calle de la Machincuepa created a scandal that set all the tongues in the City to buzzing about it: every one, of course, blaming the young lady--even though she did it to win such vast riches--for committing so publicly so great an impropriety; but some holding that a greater blame attached to the Marqués, her uncle, for punishing her--no matter how much she deserved punishment--by making her inheritance depend upon so strange and so outrageous a condition; and some even saying that the greatest blame of all rested upon the Viceroy: because he did not forbid an indecorum that was planned to--and that did--take place in the Plaza Mayor directly in front of his Palace, and so beneath his very nose. For myself, Señor, I think that the young lady deserved more blame than anybody: because she was free to make her own choice in the matter, and that she chose riches rather than propriety very clearly proved--though that, to be sure, was known before she did her choosing--that she had a bad heart. As the Viceroy who did not forbid that young lady to do what she did do was the Duque de Linares--who, as you know, Señor, took up the duties of his high office in the year 1714--you will perceive that the curious event about which I now am telling you occurred very nearly two full centuries ago.
At that time there lived in the street that ever since that time has been called the Street of the Machincuepa a very rich and a very noble Spanish gentleman whose name was Don Mendo Quiroga y Saurez, and whose title was Marqués del Valle Salado. In his beginning he was neither rich nor noble, and not even of good blood: having been begotten by an unknown father and born of an unknown mother; and having in his young manhood gone afloat out of Spain as a common sailor to seek his fortune on the sea. What he did upon the sea was a matter that his teeth guarded his tongue from talking about in his later years: but it was known generally that--while in appearance he and his ship had been engaged in the respectable business of bringing slaves from Africa to the colonies--his real business had been that of a corsair; and that on his murdering piracies the corner-stone of his great fortune had been laid.
Having in that objectionable manner accumulated a whole ship-load of money, and being arrived at an age when so bustling a life was distasteful to him, he came to Mexico; and, being come here, he bought with his ship-load of money the Valle Salado: and there he set up great salt-works out of which he coined more gold--knowing well how to grease the palms of those in the Government who could be of service to him--than could be guessed at even in a dream. Therefore it was known with certainty that he possessed a fortune of precisely three millions and a half of dollars--which is a greater sum, Señor, than a hundred men could count in a whole month of summer days. And of his millions he sent to the King such magnificent presents that the King, in simple justice to him, had to reward him; and so the King made him a marqués--and he was the Marqués del Valle Salado from that time on.
Therefore--being so very rich, and a marqués--his sea-murderings of his younger days, and his sea-stealings that made the corner-stone of his great fortune, were the very last things which his teeth suffered his tongue to talk about: and he lived with a great magnificence a life that caused much scandal, and he was generally esteemed and respected, and because of his charities he was beloved by all the poor.
As old age began to creep upon this good gentleman, Señor, and with it the infirmities that came of his loose way of living, he found himself in the world lonely: because, you see--never having perceived any necessity for marrying--he had no wife to care for him, nor children whose duty it was to minister to his needs. Therefore--his brother in Spain about that time dying, and leaving a daughter behind him--he brought from Spain his dead brother's daughter, whom he put at the head of his magnificent household, and equally confided himself in his infirmity to her care. And, that she might be repaid for her care of him, he heaped upon her every possible luxury and splendor that his great riches could procure.
The name of this young lady, Señor, was Doña Paz de Quiroga; and the position to which she was raised by Don Mendo's munificence--and all the more because she was raised to it from the depths of poverty--was very much to her mind. Doña Paz was of a great beauty that well became the rich clothing and the rich jewels that her uncle lavished upon her; and what with her beauty, and her finery, and her recognized nobility as the lawful inheritor of her uncle's title, she knew herself to be--and made no bones of asserting herself to be--the very greatest lady at the Viceroy's court. She was of a jealous and rancorous disposition, and very charitable, and excessively selfish, and her pride was beyond all words. Every one of the young men in the City immediately fell in love with her; and she won also the respect of the most eminent clerics and the homage of the very greatest nobles of the court. So nice was her sense of her own dignity that even in the privacy of her own household her conduct at all times was marked by a rigorous elegance; and in public she carried herself with a grave stateliness that would have befitted a queen.
But this young lady had a bad heart, Señor, as I have already mentioned; and toward Don Mendo, to whom she owed everything, she did not behave well at all. So far from ministering to him in his infirmities, she left him wholly to the care of hired servants; when she made her rare visits to his sick-room she carried always a scented kerchief, and held it to her nose closely--telling him that the smell of balsams and of plasters was distasteful to her; and never, by any chance whatever, did she give him one single kind look or kind word. As was most natural, Don Mendo did not like the way that Doña Paz treated him: therefore, in the inside of him, he made his mind up that he would pay her for it in the end. And in the end he did pay her for it: as she found out when, on a day, that worthy old man was called to go to heaven and they came to read his will.
Doña Paz listened to the reading of the will with the greatest satisfaction, Señor, until the reading got to the very end of it: because Don Mendo uniformly styled her his beloved niece--which somewhat surprised her--and in plain words directed that every one of his three millions and a half of dollars should be hers. But at the very end of the will a condition was made that had to be fulfilled before she could touch so much as a tlaco of her great inheritance: and that condition was so monstrous--and all the more monstrous because Doña Paz was so rigorously elegant in all her doings, and so respectful of her own dignity--that the mere naming of it almost suffocated her with fright and shame.
And, really, Señor, that Doña Paz felt that way about it is not be wondered at, because what Don Mendo put at the very end of his will was this: "So to Paz, my beloved niece, I leave the whole of my possessions; but only in case that she comply precisely with the condition that I now lay upon her. And the condition that I now lay upon her is this: That, being dressed in her richest ball dress, and wearing her most magnificent jewels, she shall go in an open coach to the Plaza Mayor at noonday; and that, being come to the Plaza Mayor, she shall walk to the very middle of it; and that there, in the very middle of it, she shall bow her head to the ground; and that then, so bowing, she shall make the turn which among the common people of Mexico is called a 'machincuepa.' And it is my will that if my beloved niece Paz does not comply precisely with this condition, within six months from the day on which I pass out of life, then the whole of my possessions shall be divided into two equal parts: of which one part shall belong to the Convent of Nuestra Señora de la Merced, and the other part shall belong to the Convent of San Francisco; and of my possessions my beloved niece Paz shall have no part at all. And this condition I lay upon my beloved niece Paz that, in the bitterness of the shame of it, she may taste a little of the bitterness with which her cruelties have filled my dying years."
Well, Señor, you may fancy the state that that most proud and most dignified young lady was in when she knew the terms on which alone her riches would come to her! And as to making her mind up in such a case, she found it quite impossible. On the one side, she would say to herself that what was required of her to win her inheritance would be done, and done with, in no more than a moment; and that then and always--being rich beyond dreaming, and in her own right a marquésa--she would be the greatest lady in the whole of New Spain. And then, on the other side, she would say to herself that precisely because of her great wealth and her title she would be all the more sneered at for descending to an act so scandalous; and that if she did descend to that act she would be known as the Marquésa de la Machincuepa to the end of her days. And what to do, Señor, she did not know at all. And as time went on and on, and she did not do anything, the Mercedarios and the Franciscanos--being always more and more sure that they would share between them Don Mendo's great fortune--talked pleasantly about new altars in their churches and new comforts in their convents: and as they talked they rubbed their hands.
And so it came to the very last day of the six months that Don Mendo had given to Doña Paz in which to make her mind up; and the morning hours of that day went slipping past, and of Doña Paz the crowds that filled the streets and the Plaza Mayor saw nothing; and the Mercedarios and the Franciscanos all had smiling faces--being at last entirely certain that Don Mendo's millions of dollars would be theirs.
And then, Señor, just as the Palace clock was striking the half hour past eleven, the great doors of Don Mendo's house were opened; and out through the doorway came an open coach in which Doña Paz was seated, dressed in her richest ball dress and wearing the most magnificent of her jewels; and Doña Paz, pale as a dead woman, drove through the crowds on the streets and into the crowd on the Plaza Mayor; and then she walked, the crowd making way for her, to the very middle of it--where her servants had laid a rich carpet for her; and there, as the Palace clock struck twelve--complying precisely with Don Mendo's condition--Doña Paz bowed her head to the ground; and then, so bowing, she made the turn which among the common people of Mexico is called a machincuepa! So did Doña Paz win for herself Don Mendo's millions of dollars: and so did come into the soul of her the bitterness of shame that Don Mendo meant should come into it--in reward for the bitterness with which her cruelties had filled his dying years!
What became of this young lady--who so sacrificed propriety in order to gain riches--I never have heard mentioned: but it is certain that the street in which she lived immediately got the name of the Street of the Machincuepa--and the exact truth of every detail of this curious story is attested by the fact that that is its name now.
Perhaps the meaning of this word machincuepa, Señor--being, as Don Mendo said in his will, a word in use among the common people of Mexico--is unknown to you. The meaning of it, in good Spanish, is salto mortal--only it means more. And it was precisely that sort of an excessive somersault--there in the middle of the crowded Plaza Mayor at noonday--that the most proud and the most dignified Doña Paz turned!