"The Vine-Leaf"

Marìa Cristina Mena

From The Century, December 1914

It is a saying in the capital of Mexico that Dr. Malsufrido carries more family secrets under his hat than any archbishop, which applies, of course, to family secrets of the rich. The poor have no family secrets, or none that Dr. Malsufrido would trouble to carry under his hat.

The doctor’s hat is, appropriately enough, uncommonly capacious, rising very high, and sinking so low that it seems to be supported by his ears and eyebrows, and it has a furry look , as if it had been brushed the wrong way, which is perhaps what happens to it if it is ever brushed at all. When the doctor takes it off, the family secrets do not fly out like a flock of parrots, but remain nicely bottled up beneath a dome of old and highly polished ivory, which, with its unbroken fringe of dyed black hair, has the effect of a tonsure; and then Dr. Malsufrido looks like one of the early saints. I’ve forgotten which one.

So edifying is his personality that, when he marches into a sick-room, the forces of disease and infirmity march out of it, and do not dare to return until he has taken his leave. In fact, it is well known that none of his patients has ever had the bad manners to die in his presence.

If you will believe him, he is almost ninety years old, and everybody knows that he has been dosing good Mexicans for half a century. He is forgiven for being a Spaniard on account of a legend that he physicked royalty in his time, and that a certain princess—but that has nothing to do with this story.

It is sure he has a courtly way with him that captivates his female patients, of whom he speaks as his penitentes, insisting on confession as a prerequisite of diagnosis, and declaring that the physician who undertakes to cure a woman’s body without reference to her soul is a more abominable kill-healthy than the famous Dr. Sangrado, who taught medicine to Gil Blas.

“Describe me the symptoms of your conscience, Señora,” he will say. “Fix yourself that I shall forget one tenth of what you tell me.”

“But what of the other nine tenths, Doctor?” the troubled lady will exclaim.

“The other nine tenths I shall take care not to believe,” Dr. Malsufrido will reply, with a roar of laughter. And sometimes he will add:

“Do not confess your neighbor’s sins; the doctor will have enough with your own.”

When an inexperienced one fears to become a penitente lest that terrible old doctor betray her confidence he reassures her as to his discretions, and at the same time takes her mind off her anxieties by telling her the story of his first patient.

“Figure you my prudence, Señora,” he begins,” that, although she was my patient, I did not so much as see her face.”

And then, having enjoyed the startled curiosity of his hearer, he continues:

“On that day of two crosses when I first undertook the mending of mortals, she arrived to me beneath a veil as impenetrable as that of a nun, saying:

“’To you I come, Señor Doctor, because no one knows you.’

“’Who would care for fame, Señorita,’ said I, ‘when obscurity brings such excellent fortune?’

“And the lady, in a voice which trembled slightly, returned:

“’If your knife is as apt as your tongue, and your discretion equal to both, I shall not regret my choice of a surgeon.’

“With suitable gravity I reassured her, and inquired how I might be privileged to serve her. She replied:

“’By ridding me of a blemish, if you are skilful enough to leave no trace on the skin.’

“’Of that I will judge, with the help of God, when the Señorita shall have removed her veil.’

“’No, no; you shall not see my face. Praise the saints the blemish is not there!’

“’Wherever it be,’ said I, resolutely,’ my science tells me that it must be seen before it can be well removed.’

“The lady answered with great simplicity that she had no anxiety on that account, but that, as she had neither duenna nor servant with her, I must help her. I had no objection, for a surgeon must needs be something of a lady’s maid. I judged from the quality of her garments that she was of an excellent family, and I was ashamed of my clumsy fingers; but she was a patient as marble, caring only to keep her face closely covered. When at last I saw the blemish she had complained of, I was astonished, and said:

“’But it seems to me a blessed stigma, Señorita, this delicate, wine-red vine-leaf, staining a surface as pure as the petal of any magnolia. With permission, I should say that the god Bacchus himself painted it here in the arch of this chaste back, where only the eyes of Cupid could find it; for it is safely below the line of the most fashionable gown.’

“But she replied:

“’I have my reasons. Fix yourself that I am superstitious.’

“I tried to reason with her on that, but she lost her patience and cried:

“’For favor, good surgeon, your knife!’

“Even in those days I had much sensibility, Señora, and I swear that my heart received more pain from the knife than did she. Neither the cutting nor the stitching brought a murmur from her. Only some strong ulterior thought could have armed a delicate woman with such valor. I beat my brains to construe the case, but without success. A caprice took me to refuse the fee she offered me.

“’No, Señorita,’ I said, ‘I have not seen your face, and if I were to take your money, it might pass that I should not see the face of a second patient, which would be a great misfortune. You are my first, and I am as superstitious as you.”

“I would have added that I had fallen in love with her, but I feared to appear ridiculous, having seen no more than her back.

“’You would place me under an obligation,’ she said. I felt that her eyes studied me attentively through her veil. ‘Very well, I can trust you the better for that. Adios, Señor Surgeon.’

“She came once more to have me remove the stitches, as I had told her, and again her face was concealed, and again I refused payment; but I think she knew that the secret of the vine-leaf was buried in my heart.”

“But that secret, what was it, Doctor? Did you ever see the mysterious lady again?”

Chist! Little by little one arrives to the rancho, Señora. Five years passed, and many patients arrived to me, but, although all showed me their faces, I loved none of them better than the first one. Partly through family influence, partly through well chosen friendships, and perhaps a little through that diligence in the art of Hippocrates for which in my old age I am favored by the most charming of Mexicans, I had prospered, and was no longer unknown.

“At a meeting of a learned society I became known to a certain Marqués who had been a great traveler in his younger days. We had a discussion on a point of anthropology, and he invited me to his house, to see the curiosities he had collected in various countries. Most of them recalled scenes of horrors, for he had a morbid fancy.

“Having taken from my hand the sword with which he had seen five Chinese pirates sliced into small pieces, he led me toward a little door, saying:

“’Now you shall see the most mysterious and beautiful of my mementos, one which recalls a singular event in our own peaceful Madrid.’

“We entered a room lighted by a skylight, and containing little but an easel on which rested a large canvas. The Marqués led me where the most auspicious light fell upon it. It was a nude, beautifully painted. The model stood poised divinely, with her back to the beholder, twisting flowers in her hair before a mirror. And there, in the arch of that chaste back, staining a surface as pure as the petal of any magnolia, what did my eyes see? Can you possibly imagine, Señora?”

Válgame Dios! The vine-leaf, Doctor!”

“What penetration of yours, Señora! It was veritably the vine-leaf, wine-red, as it had appeared to me before my knife barbarously extirpated it from the living flesh; but in the picture it seemed unduly conspicuous, as if Bacchus had been angry when he kissed. You may imagine how the sight startled me. But those who know Dr. Malsufrido need no assurance that even in those early days he never permitted himself one imprudent word. No, Señora; I only remarked, after praising the picture in proper terms:

“’What an interesting moon is that upon the divine creature’s back!’

“’Does it not resemble a young vine-leaf in early spring?’ said the marqués, who contemplated the picture with the ardor of a connoisseur. I agreed politely, saying:

“’Now that you suggest it, Marqués, it has some of the form and color of a tender vine-leaf. But I could dispense me a better vine-leaf, with many bunches of grapes, to satisfy the curiosity I have to see such a well-formed lady’s face. What a misfortune that it does not appear in that mirror, as the artist doubtless intended! The picture was never finished, then?’

“’I have reason to believe that it was finished,’ he replied, ‘but that the face painted in the mirror was obliterated. Observe that its surface is an opaque and disordered smudge of many pigments, showing no brush-work, but only marks of a rude rubbing that in some places has overlapped the justly painted frame of the mirror.’

“’This promises an excellent mystery,’ I commented lightly. ‘Was it the artist or his model who was dissatisfied with the likeness, Marqués?”

“’I suspect that the likeness was more probably too good than not good enough,’ returned the marqués. ‘Unfortunately poor Andrade is not here to tell us.’

“’Andrade! The picture was his work?”

“’The last his hand touched. Do you remember when he was found murdered in his studio?’"

“’With a knife sticking between his shoulders. I remember it very well.’

“The marqués continued:

“’I had asked him to let me have this picture He was then working on that rich but subdued background. The figure was finished, but there was no vine-leaf, and the mirror was empty of all but a groundwork of paint, with a mere luminous suggestion of a face.

“’Andrade, however, refused to name me a price, and tried to put me off with excuses. His friends were jesting about the unknown model, whom no one had managed to see, and all suspected that he designed to keep the picture for himself. That made me the more determined to possess it. I wished to make it a betrothal gift to the beautiful Señorita Lisarda Mone Alegre, who had then accepted the offer of my hand, and who is now the marquésa. When I have a desire, Doctor, it bites me, and I make it bite others. That poor Andrade, I gave him no peace.

“’He fell into tone of his solitary fits, shutting himself in his studio, and seeing no one; but that did not prevent him from knocking at his door whenever I had noting else to do. Well, one morning the door was open.’

“’Yes, yes!’ I exclaimed. ‘I remember now, Marqués, that it was you who found the body.’

“’You have said it. He was lying in front of this picture, having dragged himself across the studio. After assuring myself that he was beyond help, and while awaiting the police, I made certain observations. The first thing to strike my attention was this vine-leaf. The paint was fresh, whereas the rest of the figure was comparatively dry. Moreover, its color had not been mixed with Andrade’s usual skill. Observe you, Doctor, that the blemish is not of the texture of the skin, or bathed in its admirable atmosphere. It presents itself as an excrescence. And why? Because that color had been mixed and applied with feverish haste by the hand of a dying man, whose one thought was to denounce his assassin—she who undoubtedly bore such a mark on her body, and who had left him for dead, after carefully obliterating the portrait of herself which he had painted in the mirror.’

“’Ay Dios! But the police, Marqués—they never reported these details so significant?’

“’Our admirable police are not connoisseurs of the painter’s art, my friend. Moreover, I had taken the precaution to remove from the dead man’s fingers the empurpled brush with which he had traced that accusing symbol.’

“’You wished to be the accomplice of an unknown assassin?’

“’Inevitably, Senor, rather than deliver that lovely body to the hands of the public executioner.’

“The marqués raised his lorgnette and gazed at the picture. And I—I was recovering from my agitation, Señora. I said:

“’It seems to me, Marqués, that if I were a woman and loved you, I should be jealous of that picture.’

“He smiled and replied:

“’It is true that the marquésa affects some jealousy on that account, and will not look at the picture. However, she is one who errs on the side of modesty, and prefers more austere objects of contemplation. She is excessively religious.’

“’I have been called superstitious,’ pronounced a voice behind me.

“It was a voice that I had heard before. I turned, Señora, and I ask you to try to conceive whose face I know beheld.”

Válgame la Virgen, Dr. Malsufrido, was it not the face of the good Marquésa, and did she not happen to have been also your first patient?”

“Again such penetration, Señora, confounds me. It was she. The Marqués did me the honor to present me to her.

“’I have heard of your talents, Señor Surgeon,’ she said.

“’And I of your beauty, Marquésa,’ I hastened to reply; ‘but that tale was not so well told.’ And I added, ‘If you are superstitious, I will be, too.’

“With one look from her beautiful and devout eyes she thanked me for that prudence with to this day, Señora, is at the service of my penitentes, little daughters of my affections and my prayers; and then she signed and said:

“’Can you blame me for not loving this questionable lady of the vine-leaf, of whom my husband is such a gallant accomplice?’

“’Not for a moment,’ I replied, ‘for I am persuaded, Marquésa, that a lady of rare qualities may have power to bewitch an unfortunate man without showing him the light of her face.’”