Monday, 9 May 2011

Tales from Argentina – The O’Gormans......... (Part 4 of 6)

The Lifelines Join

Camila entered a new phase of discovery, about both her mother Joaquina and herself.  She had by some miracle managed to get her mother alone one afternoon and they had a long conversation during which Joaquina attempted to persuade her youngest daughter to accept the hand of her admirer Lázaro Torrecilla. She was now 21 and it was time she made up her mind.  Camila told her that she would not marry a man with whom she was not in love, and her mother merely smiled grimly.  That sort of love was only to be found in cheap novels, she told her. 

Camila dared to question her further and learned that her mother had never known real love or desire – for her it was all a duty.  She ‘submitted’ to her husband because that is what one did to have children.  The rest was headaches.  It was an entirely new experience to find herself feeling sorry for her mother.

The young woman had found a new vocation.  She was at the Parroquia del Socorro every day, and when not singing in the choir, was teaching illiterates to read and write.  Her enthusiasm grew as she saw the evidence that her methods were effective; thus she worked even harder to refine her technique.  Once as a child Blanquita had taken her into a pulpería (a tavern) where she had a message to hand over, and during the few minutes that she was there she noticed a group of men sitting round a table playing with little cardboard squares, which they would hand round, help themselves from a pile and laugh a lot as they did so.  She asked Blanquita what they were doing, but the older woman’s attention was elsewhere and she replied absently that they were reading.

Spanish playing cards that
would have been used in pulperías

Now as she thought of ways to teach adults to read she remembered this scene.  She purchased a pack of cards and covered the numbered sides with a large letter.  She would invite her pupils to play cards, gradually perfecting the method into a series of games where words could be formed.  The priest was a bit dubious about the propriety of the method, but the results were undeniable.  At a time when Rosas was closing schools because he needed funds for the military, Camila was successfully turning out adults who could read and write.  He therefore said nothing.

One afternoon she was returning from church when she was caught by a sudden heavy thunderstorm.  She sheltered under a tree for a while but when it showed no signs of letting up she realised that she was going to have to make a run for it.  Gathering up her skirts she sprinted along the muddy streets, splashing through puddles, so that by the time she arrived home she was soaked through and her skirts and shoes were covered in mud.

As soon as she was through the door she was surprised to catch sight of Eduardo, her younger brother the seminarist, whom she had not seen in many months.  With a cry of delight she launched herself at him, felling him to the ground in their old childhood manner.  Her brother was clearly pleased to see her, yet awkward, and as soon as he caught his breath and asked her not to soak him all over again because he had just donned dry clothes, he informed her that they were not alone.

Lady's hairstyle of the 1840s

She glanced up laughing and found herself looking into a pair of startled dark brown eyes.  They picked themselves up and in some confusion, Camila rushed away to change into dry clothes.  The formal introductions were not made until they had sat down to dinner, and Camila was crushed to learn that Ladislao, nephew of the governor of Tucumán, was in Buenos Aires attending the same seminary as Eduardo, and they had made friends.  Camila had seen them both in lay clothes, and while changing had felt strangely excited and taken extra care with her appearance.  Now she realised her mistake and did her best to conceal her disappointment.  They too had got drenched in the thunderstorm, and Ladislao had been lent some of Eduardo’s old garments.

In a daze she heard him explain that he was staying temporarily at the home of Colonel Sosa y Heredia, a rich man from Tucumán who was renown for taking in his countrymen when they came to the capital to try their luck.  Ladislao was hoping to be appointed priest of a local parish.

Her mind in a turmoil, Camila retired early.  Blanquita, who knew her well, had observed the casual way they had glanced at each other across the table and was startled to recognise the same look she would sometimes observe on Pedro’s face.  The two young people had made an impact on one another and she knew what she had to do.

At dawn the following morning Blanquita made her way to the local herbalist healer, and handed her a perfumed handkerchief belonging to her young mistress.

“Your child is bewitched” was the verdict of the old lady.  “Nothing good will come of it”.

For his part, Ladislao was questioned closely by Sosa Heredia as to his movements the night before, and warned that he must always inform his superiors where he was going and more importantly he must always wear the scarlet emblem if he didn’t want to get into trouble.

Some days later Ladislao was summoned to the house of Bishop Felipe Elortondo y Palacio where, he thought, he would be told to which parish he would be sent.  However, the bishop made no mention of this, merely telling him that from the following day onwards he would be living in his household.  The bishop lived alone except for an assistant-cum-housekeeper named Josefa Gómez, and it didn’t take long for Ladislao to notice that she was a handsome woman modestly dressed who was clearly on more familiar terms with her employer than her position would give reason to suppose.

Fashions of the 1840s

Josefa Gómez was an interesting character herself.  A widow of means – she owned two properties – she nevertheless chose to live in concubinage with a bishop.  Considering the times she lived in, she must have truly loved him to embark upon a lifestyle which would have been highly condemned by polite society.  And yet the clergyman and his assistant were regularly received by Rosas and Manuelita.  It was said of Rosas on such matters that illegalities were negotiable, what he did not tolerate was being lied to.  In later years when Rosas was living in exile in Southampton, England, Josefa became a confidante and frequent correspondent.

When Ladislao had been living with Bishop Elortondo for several months, a vacancy arose at the Parish of El Socorro, and he was appointed curate.  He knew the O’Gormans worshipped at that church, and resolutely pushed to the back of his mind the fact that he was bound to see Camila sooner or later, including – and this unnerved him more than he liked to admit – taking her confession.

One evening as Camila was putting the teaching tools away for the day she was visited by a young native woman wrapped in a poncho.  She was of the same age as Camila, who recognised her as being Eugenia Castro, the Governor’s young mistress.   She knew Eugenia from having seen her socially at Rosas’ country retreat; she had borne him several children, her first at fourteen years of age.  Rosas had never recognised any of these children, who were looked after by their mother and the rest of the staff.  They were just accepted as being part of the wider family.  Eugenia told her she wanted to learn to read and write but warned her that her master had spies everywhere and would be very angry to learn that she was trying to get some education.  The lessons were going to have to be conducted in utmost secrecy, and irregularly.  Camila agreed to this and Eugenia departed.

She was thus a little later than usual as she made her way to the door, and in the twilight almost bumped into Ladislao.  They were both clearly very happy to see each other again, despite their mutually respectful stances of young society woman and catholic priest, and he insisted that it was too late for her to walk home by herself and that he would walk back with her.

A pattern began to evolve whereby she spent the afternoons teaching at the Socorro church and he would walk her home in the evenings.  At first she would ask him to explain details of dogma to her, but as they got used to each other they discovered that they were like-minded on most subjects – the disgust at the violence around them, the climate of fear in which they lived, their passion for reading and for looking at the stars.  Sometimes they took horse rides together and people who saw them merely approved of the sterling charitable work being carried out by the young woman.
It was at about this time that Joaquina organised for her children to have daguerreotypes made, and this is the only image of Camila in existence.  It measures a modest 5x6 cm, which could have meant that she had intended this copy to give to Ladislao as a keepsake one day.

This is the only known photo of Camila O'Gorman

Camila knew what was happening to her, but it was not so with Ladislao.  All he knew was that he was enjoying his work.  It was immensely satisfying to find that he was able to help and comfort others less fortunate, and the pleasure of giving of himself and the rewards he received from the parishioners who were grateful of this gift.  His added pleasure in Camila’s company enhanced these feelings of satisfaction.  He felt attracted to her soul without realising that he was falling in love with her.  At that time Ladislao’s happiness came from his closeness to God and Camila, and he was hardly conscious that he was not differentiating one from the other.  When he walked back alone to his cell he felt empty.

Blanquita knew Camila only too well and was perfectly aware of the way her feelings were going.  Her attempts to resolve the situation involved potions and herbs which she kept getting for her, though she had to admit to herself that Camila looked more radiant as the days passed.  The matrons who saw her at church had noticed it, her sisters noted her increased tolerance, her mother found her more affectionate and her piano teacher was impressed with the renewed dedication with which she studied her music.

The best course of action was to remove her from Buenos Aires and Ladislao’s presence, but with the change in Camila it was impossible to suggest to Joaquina that what her daughter needed was a rest on the farm.  Then she had a brainwave.  She told Camila that her grandmother – La Perichona – was ill and asking for her.

She could hardly refuse.  She told Ladislao that she would be absent for a few days and rejoiced in his barely concealed distress.  Love had turned out to be as promised by her grandmother, not as warned by her mother, she reflected.

In the carriage that took her and Blanquita to the farm, she at last confided in the only person who truly understood her.  It was not of course a surprise to Blanquita, but she was worried by the strength of the young girl’s feelings.

“You’re not in love” she exclaimed “you’re possessed”. 

In truth, she didn’t know how to advise her; Camila evidently had no intention of marrying Torrecilla and would not listen to reason.

Camila went straight to her grandmother’s bedside and was alarmed to find her lying still, her eyes wide open and staring at the ceiling.  For the first time she found herself looking at an old lady.  Gone were the fancy shawls, the diadem, the painted cheeks, the sparkle in her eyes.  Camila tried the formula which had always worked before.

“Rise my lady, don your silks – quickly, for the viceroy approaches!”

An old voice replied from the bed “There’s no sense in calling her, child, La Perichona has gone.  I’m just your grandmother, your father’s mother, hated by all her sons”.

Camila did not recognise this person.

“Why does my father hate you?”

“Because I was a bad mother”.

“That could give him reason to dislike you, but not to hate you…”

“And perhaps because I have loved without restraint and he does not approve.”

Camila sought to ease her own troubled mind  - “Have you ever tried not to love?” 

“Yes, but it was pointless.  When you feel it so strongly you might as well give in to it.”

“Even if it’s a forbidden love?”

“There’s no such thing as forbidden love.”

Not knowing how long this period of lucidity might last, Camila started somewhat haltingly to tell her she was in love but could not reveal who the object of her affection was.  However her grandmother had suddenly grown very tired and asked her to return the following day, when they would talk about it.

The next morning when Camila knocked on her door, it was plain that the Witless One had returned – or so it seemed.  Anita had realised that her granddaughter preferred to see the grande dame, so she was awaiting her in a wedding dress and plumed hat.

“Take a letter” she demanded imperiously.  The girl hastened to obey, and with paper and pen in front of her she dipped the quill in the ink and looked at her expectantly.

“By means of this document I herewith bequeath to my granddaughter Camila O’Gorman my most valuable possession, because she is the bravest person in my kingdom that I have ever known.  She shall have all the love I possess and that which I have not yet had time to use.  Only a valiant person can love as I once did.”

Far from helping her to forget Ladislao by putting distance between them, Blanquita and Anita had inadvertently hardened Camila’s resolve.

Before returning to the city she learned that Blanquita and Pedro wished to marry and finally be together.  On impulse Camila delayed her departure a little longer and organised their wedding herself, even persuading the local priest to do the honours.  There was feasting and merrymaking, and a joyful Blanquita.  She was happy for them, but as she returned to the city alone planning how she would break the news to her parents she felt a new sadness at having effectively lost  her closest friend.

Buenos Aires in the 1830s

In the meantime Ladislao had received what was for him devastating news.  His uncle Celedonio had written to him to say that now that he had a sinecure he would no longer need the monthly allowance he sent him, which would be better employed elsewhere.  Ladislao’s stipend was so low that he could not live on it.   As with all matters these days, he resolved to put it to the back of his mind till he saw Camila again.  She would know what to do.


For Juan Manuel de Rosas this was a particularly testing time.  The British and French were blockading the port of Buenos Aires and opposition to his rule by Justo José de Urquiza, a general and politician who would one day be the next president of the Argentine Confederation, was growing north of the city, in the provinces of Entre Ríos and Corrientes.  Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, a writer, activist and intellectual who was also destined to be president of the country twenty years hence was at the time exiled in Chile publishing anti-Rosas literature, circulated clandestinely.  One of his books which had a surprisingly successful black market circulation was well known to Rosas, and he kept a copy displayed prominently on his desk.  A paragraph in his introduction particularly annoyed Rosas:

“…Rosas, son of cultivated Buenos Aires without being so himself – cold of heart, calculating of spirit, dispassionately evil, gradually organising his despotism with all the intelligence of a Maquiavelli...”

 “What would he know about passion”, Rosas would often say after reading this paragraph, “… he comments on what is right and wrong from the comfort of being on the outside, without even soiling his boots with dung, as I have.”

Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, during the years
when he was living as an exile in Chile

It was best to annihilate your enemies, he said.  To those supporters who advised caution he would retort that not even tigers killed unless they were hungry, and 20 drops of blood spilt in a timely manner would avoid 20,000 later on. 

Eugenia Castro had noticed that Rosas was more worried and jumpy than usual, constantly wanting to know where she was going and suspecting all those around him of treachery.  She managed to get out to go to the church of  El Socorro for her lesson with Camila, but knew she could not risk staying long. 

However she was unprepared for what she found when she got there.  Camila had just returned from La Matanza, and was feeling that her situation with Ladislao was hopeless.  When Eugenia walked into the little classroom she found her teacher weeping uncontrollably and unable to say what was wrong with her.  She comforted her as best she could, but realised she could not tarry while Camila composed herself – she was sure she had seen a spy across the street when she arrived; she had to get back as soon as she could.  She suggested that the exhausted Camila should lay down on a bench and rest for a while, and by the time she took her leave of her she had done so.

Ladislao did not know Camila was back.  In his little cell at the back of the church he had eventually fallen into a troubled sleep, but he awoke several hours later to hear someone beating on his door.  It was the O’Gorman coachman looking for Camila, who had not returned that evening.  Acting on instinct he made his way to the classroom up in the bell tower, and suddenly met her half way because the slamming of doors had woken her and she was stumbling down in the dark, shocked at how long she had slept. 

Here it was where they kissed for the first time, without even seeing each other, just knowing the other’s identity by smell and touch.  No words were spoken, none were needed.  They quickly separated as the voices of the coachman and the fretting verger were heard approaching.

After explanations and apologies were given, she was taken home, and neither of them slept for the rest of that night.  Camila replayed the moment over and over in her mind trying to make sense of the turbulence of her feelings, while Ladislao stared at the ceiling, tortured by having been tempted into sin and yet knowing that the subject of the temptation was someone he liked – loved – and respected.  It was his first encounter with carnal desire; he found himself wishing he had never met her yet giving thanks that he had.  How could he have known that love would be so sweet and yet so terrifying?  How could he love God and betray Him with carnal love?  Up until this point he had assumed that this love of the heart would in time be set aside for the church, it had been so ordained since his childhood.  But that was before he had touched her.  During those moments all he had ever learned, every vow he had ever made was swept away as dust before a tornado.  It was too late to give her up now.

He was still awake when dawn broke.  Exhausted and red eyed he left a note for the verger, saddled a horse and made his way to Quilmes, where he could go on retreat.  He needed to think away from Camila for a few days.

She sought him out as soon as he returned.  They looked at each other, and in the end it was all very simple.  They smiled at each other and he said ”My child, what has possessed you to fall in love like this with a priest?”

She replied “I did not fall in love with a priest.  When I saw you for the first time you were not wearing a cassock.”

Sources:  Marta Merkin:  Camila O'Gorman, La historia de un amor inoportuno (Editorial Sudamericana, 1997)

Images:  from Google, and stills from the film Camila, Directed by Maria Luisa Bemberg
Next post:  The lovers flee from Buenos Aires


Photo Finish -
from Lonicera's digital archive

Different types of grasses
can make an interesting picture

A doorway can provide
an effective frame for the picture

One day I'll have learned enough about Photoshop
to get that pole out of the way...

Leaves through sunlight -
one of the best uses of light ever

Undergrowth as frame

Mollie's eyes make the picture
(or the fact that she's getting away with being on
the dining-room table...)

My Patagonian friend Luis looking rueful
after having ruined his jacket
by lying under my hired car to repair
a leaky petrol pipe...

Trees and foliage as a frame



Kimberly said...

I just learn so much from what you write, because I´m able to actually see with my eyes what people looked like in those times, and even the cards they used to play with. When I travelled to Argentina, I wanted to rent an apartment in buenos aires that had a kind of colonial style, and the only neighbourhoods you can find them are San Telmo and La Boca. Being there helped me discover new things as they way they dressed, the rituals they had and many other traditional things that I wanted to know since I´m writing a paper about it.
Just wonderful!

Lonicera said...

Thank you Kim for your kind comment - glad you're enjoying it.

Joyful said...

Poor Ladislao.

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